Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lean on Pete


Want to see the saddest, most wonderful movie ever? It's this one. A heartfelt and brutal coming of age tale, where Charley (Charlie Plummer) the teen son of an affectionate but neglectful single dad (Travis Fimmel), must find his way through a hard and cynical world when he's left alone.

How does he get by? He leans on Pete.

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, based on a novel. Charley gets a job at a horse track run by Del (Steve Buscemi), who cheats and misuses his animals in his desperate attempts to keep afloat. There, Charley becomes attached to a failing racehorse called Lean on Pete, and worries for Pete's safety. He must also contend with drama at home, and when things go bad, and then worse, his own inherent aversion to accepting help from strangers, who only ever seem interested in interfering with his life. The movie observes as he tries to go it alone, only to be beat down by life every step of the way.

The plot's constant down-turning is heartbreaking, but never enters unconvincing territory. Disaster gets its due of foreshadowing, and bad choices made are also the most natural ones -- stemming from Charley's flawed mindset, and admirable sense of obligation. He does reprehensible things out of perceived necessity; regret and an inner war is clear, yet his goal drives him on. Adults and authorities can seem antagonistic and careless, but they have cares of their own. There's no black and white villainy; it's just Charley's stubborn and driven naivete, clashing with a jaded and immovable world.

The movie is wholly dedicated to showing us who he is, and what he wants, even when he can't articulate it.

Charlie Plummer owns this movie. Even as a young, up-and-coming talent, this kind of role is already familiar to him -- he's a coming-of-age pro. His repressed, moody air is perfect for the film's tone, as is his magnetic screen presence for the singular focus on character. I loved seeing the subtle tips of balance he gives between telling the truth, and lies. Sometimes he'll give an expression that reads like words as to what he's thinking; communicating so well physically, that you only need the dialogue as a kind of enhancing chaser. Although the dialogue is often magnificent in its simplicity and powerful subtext.

I was so zeroed in on him that I feel like I barely ever looked at supporting characters, though that was almost certainly intentional on the movie's part. It frames him so that we're always drawn to him, but also so we'll constantly search too, to see him better. The supporters are excellent too, though, especially Steve Buscemi, and Chloƫ Sevigny who plays Bonnie, a jockey working for Del. And Travis Fimmel's father is fascinatingly complex. They have moments of guidance for Charley, but one by one, they falter. Passing characters feel real, though they're exclusively there to affect Charley. We mainly see his reactions to them, not them.

The cinematography felt like art in and of itself. Those desert landscapes. 

In true indie style, the movie utilizes long takes with confidence and grace, adding to the impact of performances, and keeping the film grounded and natural. But the longer shots are also often on the move, so changing of angle and environment is still there to hold interest. Camera movements stay simple, and there's no finagling to force extra long length. Two minutes is about as long as they go, and only then in key scenes. One such scene I can't figure exactly how they did it, but that's spoiler territory. The story is conveyed visually, and of course, crafted to reflect back on Charley.

The whole movie is a journey to understanding him; a task both easy in individual moments, and complex in the over-arc. If you think it's strange I haven't mentioned much of titular character, that's because this film isn't about the horse, really. We care only that Charley cares about him, and ultimately, as Bonnie says, he's just a horse. Well, maybe not. He's a mirror through which we can see Charley, and a metaphorical crutch for Charley to lean on as he chases goals and runs from pain. In the end the story is about family and home; Charley, and his father; a character much absent, but always in mind.

"Sorry I can't give you more." "No, don't worry about it. This is... I don't need more."

The heavy nature of the plot, the emphasis on artistic tone, and the methodical pacing doesn't make this one easily accessible to viewers strictly out for a good fun time -- but for anyone who loves character study, coming of age dramas, and the individuality of personal indie films, Lean on Pete is a must see; one of those rare films that utilizes its every feature in immaculate harmony. Moving, hard, and honest, it never sinks into sentiment or melodrama, but stings to the core, moves to empathy, and, somehow, like the best of its kind, finds hope through it all. A wonderful beast, indeed.

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