“Sorry I can’t give you more.” Ray (Travis Fimmel) doesn’t speak much — it’s hard to talk with a can of beer pressed to your lips — so everything he says in his unplaceable twang carries a kind of double weight. His words might be the only thing in his life that he’s ever chosen carefully. So when he sits on the porch of his rundown Portland house, holds out a wad of cash, and apologizes to his towheaded teenage son that he only has $20 to spare, it’s easy to understand that Ray’s not just talking about the money.
It’s not that he’s a bad guy, necessarily, he’s just weak. A screw-up. He loves Charley (Charlie Plummer), and he’s raised the kid by himself after his ex-wife skipped out on them both, but he can’t hold down on a job to save his life, and he seems to have burned down every bridge he’s ever crossed. In fact, Ray messed things up with his own sister so bad that they don’t even speak anymore, denying Charley the only maternal figure he might have known. The guy is trying, but he’s stuck inside himself. There’s nothing worse than knowing that sorry is all you’ve got to give.
A searching, violently unsentimental coming-of-age drama about all the things we have to offer one another, Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” isn’t the kind of heartwarming indie that its opening moments might lead you to expect. In fact, the further this story bends towards any sort of preciousness, the more unforgiving it becomes. In other words, the film is par for the course for the writer/director behind cinematic gut-punches like “Weekend” and “45 Years.”
Adapted from the Willy Vlautin novel of the same name, this ambling neo-Northwestern begins in earnest when Charley comes across a local racetrack on one of his early morning runs. Entranced by all the pretty horses, he catches the attention of surly trainer Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), who offers to throw him a few bucks for some help at a race a few towns over. They seem like a classic pair of unlikely friends — the beaten-down hustler and the kind-hearted kid — but Del never softens. He almost warms up a little when they cross paths with a stagnant, minor-league jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), but the guy is a vulture at heart. Del sells his steeds to a Mexican slaughterhouse the moment they let him down, no exceptions. Not even for Lean on Pete, the five-year-old quarter-horse with whom Charley has formed an obvious bond. So Charley does what a lot of kids might do in that situation: He runs away with the animal, blazing a trail towards Canada in search of the aunt he hasn’t seen in years.
Essentially “My Life as a Horse” (or “Pete’s Horse,” to riff on a more recent touchstone), Haigh’s unhurried movie meanders its way up north in episodic fashion, the director watching from a distance as Charley and Pete move from one encounter to the next. The camerawork, while plenty confident, is also deliberately stiff and unresponsive; it drinks up the gloaming beauty of the big Washington sky at night, but it regards Charley with a pronounced apathy, the tall 1:85 aspect ratio allowing the kid to seem dwarfed and alone. It’s the difference between a grand adventure and just getting lost.
There’s no stirring music, no opportunities for Pete to do anything especially cute. On the contrary, the two just clomp along through the indifferent desert shrubbery, Charley walking beside his four-legged friend (he never rides) and telling his life story to the stone-faced horse. Most of the pitstops they make leave them hungrier and more desperate than they were before. The only people who welcome Charley into their home for a nice meal and some videogames are a couple of brutish veteran bros whose hospitality still manages to leave the boy with a bitter aftertaste. Eventually, things go from bad to worse.
Haigh, however, isn’t a sadist, and he doesn’t forget the John Steinbeck quote that Vlautin used as the epigraph for his novel: “It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.” The film isn’t as punishing as it sounds. It’s slow, borrowing Kelly Reichardt’s pacing in addition to her usual milieu (“Wendy and Lucy” fans will be very comfortable here), but the story is propelled by its moral velocity, by the friction it finds between its characters. Each scene is so quietly compelling because Haigh doesn’t focus on cruelty, but helplessness — instead of dwelling on the fact that so many people fail to rescue a distressed teenage kid, he hones in on that low tide feeling of letting let a moment of compassion slip through your fingers. The residue of these discrete scenes accumulate into an undeniable force as the film drifts towards its finish, Haigh mining a rich and profoundly human sense of regret from the unrealized potential that lingers in the air between Charley and the strangers who can’t save him.
Of course, none of this would work if Plummer weren’t such an ideal vessel. A wispy blond tumbleweed who seems to have blown right off the set of a Gus van Sant movie (one of his older ones, anyway), Plummer is so magnetic because he never allows Charley even a scrap of self-pity, even though you wouldn’t blame him if he did. This is a cold movie dressed up like a warm one, but Plummer maintains the right temperature from start to finish, restrained but never unrealistic.
The rest of the cast is just as strong, from Steve Buscemi all the way to Steve Zahn. The former evokes memories of “Fargo,” playing another one of his thin-skinned assholes and reminding us that nobody does a better job of acting the prick in a way that makes you want to stick out your hand. Zahn doesn’t show up until the end, but he does yeoman’s work with a truly thankless role. Sevigny, most important of all in her own way, threads the needle between sensitivity and self-interest. Her character is quick to smile, and she rides into the movie with enough gendered baggage for us to think she might be able to mother Charley out of trouble, but it’s our own damn fault if we fall into that trap. Everyone tells Charley not to get attached to Pete, but it’s not so easy. We accept the love we think we deserve, and all that. Also, Pete is adorable.
“Lean on Pete” is a small gem that covers a vast amount of territory. It’s a quiet beauty in every respect, the kind of movie where you can hear the floorboards creak, the kind of movie where even the most shocking moments (and there are a few) are delivered with a certain flatness. Every thing that happens is just another thing that happens. There’s an emotional catharsis waiting at the end of the road, but you might not even feel it until after you leave the theater.
Haigh has made better films, films that dig their way deeper under your skin, and this one is rough around the edges (and edges are all it’s got). But Charley’s wayward journey is simply too honest to shake off. It shows you the world as it is, not as you might want it to be, and even its happiest beats (and there are a few) are only so joyful because of the pain they push aside. We all have to save each other — the tragedy of it is that we can’t. And yet, having someone to lean on can make all the difference. It must, because we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome, but we’re also still here.
“Lean on Pete” premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. A24 will release it in the U.S. at an unspecified date.