Indie movie characters who live in the Pacific Northwest are most often depicted as pioneers in modern times, losing themselves in the wilderness and constantly trying to reinvent themselves, never asking anyone for help. This has been explored by Gus Van Sant from his very first film, Mala Noche and comes back whenever Van Sant gets the itch to return to his indie roots after a studio film, like in Elephant, Gerry, Paranoid Park and Last Days. The newest Northwest indie darling, Kelly Reichardt, has similarly used small moments to explore this delicate evergreen unraveling from Old Joy through Certain Women.
Though he’s British, we can now add Andrew Haigh (45 Years, HBO’s Looking) to this stable. His newest film, Lean on Pete, shares more than a setting of Portland, Oregon that those two filmmakers frequently use (and reside in). There’s a similar stillness in pace and a respect for the rugged self-assuredness that no single setback will drown their central character.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a new kid to Portland. He and his father (Travis Fimmel) have just arrived from Spokane, after doing a few stints in other Washington towns. Tugging one small TV from an extension cord to one room to another, barren cupboards—their living situation is one that you won’t see on Portlandia, with the exception of Ranier and Olympia beer cans (“it’s the water” after all). Haigh doesn’t show their poorness as dire straits. Though Charley’s dad possesses standard movie deadbeat dad qualities of leaving all the time to throw back beers and chase women, Fimmel shows immense warmth, fondness, and respect for his son. When he’s about to leave for the day and night, he gives Charley a twenty and says, “I wish I could give you more” and you know he’s talking about more than a weekend’s worth of cheap food money. Afterward, you can hear Fimmel tell his latest conquest, a secretary he says with a smile, “did you hear that? My son likes your cooking” and his son smiles and puts the $20 in his pocket.
There are lots of nice character touches to Lean on Pete. All the characters are down on their luck, but they show know desperation, just that they similarly wish they could get some more. Charley becomes enamored with a local racetrack and offers to assist a small-time horse owner named Del (Steve Buscemi). Lean on Pete is one of his horses and Del is running him into the ground because he needs to earn some money. The duo travel to small tracks in remote Washington and Oregon towns. In another nice character touch, Del observes that Charley has no manners when he’s eating food. Manners are the least that one should have, but we know that Charley most often eats on his own. Eventually Del and Charley hit the road with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) a jockey who’s been on the racket almost as long as Del has and doesn’t get attached to any horse. You can’t, she tells Charley, they’re not pets.
Once Charley’s dad gets sent to the hospital after being attacked by the secretary’s estranged husband, the characters start to disappear and we’re left with just Charley and Lean on Pete on the run from everything as he searches for his aunt who lives in Wyoming. All that careful character building that Haigh did gets left behind in a sprint. But it’s a race to somewhere entirely less interesting than the characters it leaves behind.
As someone who grew up primarily in the Idaho, Montana, Washington corridor—and who also had to rely on bowling alley strangers in small town Wyoming to help get rid of my car when it broke down and was unsalvageable—I can attest that there’s a feeling of self reliance that anyone can get themselves out of a jam and asking for help is the last resort. Perhaps it’s the expanse of the land, the stillness of time, but big problems feel more manageable and time to think is aplenty. That’s a feeling that Haigh fully conveys with Lean on Pete.
Despite depicting that fully, Haigh’s film truly operates as two halves. The racetrack half and the runaway half. And the racetrack half just works so much better. You can feel the racetrack dust in your nostrils, taste the cheap Olympia beer, and revel in the ease in which Sevigny and Buscemi get into their old-hand saddles. The runaway portion stalls. I teared up when Charley tells Pete his dad said, “I ain’t worth shit, but I sure like to hang with you.” But the reason why that gut punch lands is because Fimmel and Haigh established that that statement is true. With 45 Years and Weekend, Haigh has shown a mastery of landing an ending emotional gut punch. Here he throws so many punches early, he tires out.
Without the more engaging characters, Lean on Pete (the horse) is supposed to operate as a parental substitute, but the quick attachment doesn’t feel earned. Charley just soundboards his needs to the horse, and though I feel for the boy, this film suffers for leaving humans in the dust in favor of the horse and expansive desert dust. And none of the homeless pickles or interactions that Charley gets into go in a direction that we haven’t seen before.
For me, Lean on Pete is a great short story that ends up going on for far too long. And the further Charley gets from the Wenatchee and Portland racetracks, the more unique first half starts to feel pretty darn distant.
Lean on Pete had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival; it doesn’t currently have a US release date, but will be released by A24.
For more of our reviews from Venice, click below.