2 Hrs., 1 Min.
Lean on Pete September 4, 2018
One of the scenes featured in My Own Private Idaho — which has become a sort of classic in itself — is memorably invoked in Lean on Pete. The moment referenced is the one which finds Phoenix, a narcoleptic hustler, sitting across from a friend (and fellow prostitute) played by Keanu Reeves. The two are perched in front of a fire carefully built in the middle of a desert, taking a break from the cross-country odyssey that has driven much of the film thus far. The dark of the night fosters a sort of intimacy; the flame-licked atmosphere seems to almost welcome a confession or two. One comes. After a couple beats of hesitation, Phoenix opens his heart, and reveals his love for his listening companion. Reeves gently rebuffs him.
There is a comparable moment in Lean on Pete. It does not revolve around two men, or a quiet declaration of love, though: it involves a boy and his horse. Our 15-year-old protagonist, Charley (Plummer), is sitting in front of a lamp, rather than a fire, at the heart of a dryscape; he is with a thoroughbred he has swiped from a horse-training employer (Steve Buscemi) who doesn’t want it anymore.
Like Phoenix, Charley is an orphan on a journey. In the aftermath of his irresponsible, neglectful single father’s (Travis Fimmel) sudden death, he has set out to look for his aunt. Because he does not have her contact information — she and Dad had a relationship-terminating squabble a few years back — he will be placed in foster care if he does not physically track her down.
The fireside siesta is a well-earned rest in an impulsive, arduous journey. During it, Charley orates to the horse as if it were a sounding board. It is likely that he has never felt this relaxed speaking to anyone.
Both the Idaho and Pete scenes are crushing. But the latter is, perhaps because of Charley’s age and increasingly worrying dilemma, even more so. Here is a young man so used to being looked at as an annoyance, and so accustomed to being friendless as a result of an imposed, near-penniless caravanic lifestyle, that he has decided that this rather indifferent mount will have to work as the friend and/or parent he’s never had.
This makes for the third time Lean on Pete’s writer and director, Andrew Haigh, has made me cry. Waterworks first came, about two years ago, when I watched the evocative marriage-in-crisis melodrama 45 Years (2015). Just a few months ago, they cameoed again during Weekend (2011), an emotionally lucid romance. Wet eyes were directed toward the television screen twice during Lean on Pete: The first time, they were reacting to the fireside divulging; the second, they were reeling from the inevitable reunion between Charley and his aunt.
So much about the movie is obvious. It is a coming-of-age story with a child-in-jeopardy angle; many of the characters, like Buscemi’s gruff-but-caring racehorse owner, or the latter’s Chloë Sevigny-portrayed horse-riding companion who briefly takes Charley under her wing, might have otherwise been facilely portrayed as the first adults who seem interested in listening to what the boy has to say. (We find out that his favorite pastimes are jogging and playing football; later, we learn that he genuinely values his education.) The happy ending could have been inculcated with overbearing saccharinity.
But Lean on Pete is precise and naturalistic in its storytelling and writing. Haigh’s approach is almost anthropological. He is interested in setting and scenario first, then deduces how his characters might respond to each. This results in noticeably shaded characterizations. As noted by the critic Brian Tallerico, the way the characters interact — how they talk, what they reveal, what they choose to hide — are uncommonly mesmeric features.
The coming-of-age banner is easy to place on top of Lean on Pete. But such an action seems superficial: It is much more emotionally contoured than its fellow, customarily banal Bildungsromans. This is a movie endowed with extraordinary poignancy and heart — an unexpected reality for a film I’d initially dodged for its silly-looking boy-and-his-horse-centric promotional images. A
was reminded of Gus Van Sant’s street drama My Own Private Idaho (1991) a number of times while watching this April’s Lean on Pete, a wholehearted coming-of-age movie. The film is mostly set in and around Portland; watches as its leading character frantically looks for a long-lost relative; features plenty of nerve-wracking street action; and stars Charlie Plummer, a waiflike, shaggy-haired actor who both looks like River Phoenix and possesses his same preternatural kind of talent.