Eighteen-year-old actor Charlie Plummer has credits dating back to 2010, including a semi-recurring role on Boardwalk Empire. However, Plummer only stepped to the front of the stage in 2017 with a pair of profile-raising movie roles. First came a small but crucial part in Oren Moverman’s deservedly underseen indie The Dinner, and then he played the kidnapped heir John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s surprisingly solid All the Money in the World.
Now comes his brightest spotlight, the lead role in Andrew Haigh’s horse drama Lean on Pete. Wiry and gaunt with pleading eyes, Plummer perfectly embodies Charley Thompson, the film’s brutally neglected protagonist. Plummer has a face that feels permanently torn, Carey Mulligan-like, between breaking into tears and breaking into an agonized smile. I don’t see a lot of carefree romantic comedies in this kid’s future—he’s more like a less mannered Caleb Landry Jones, or a more mannered Tye Sheridan.
Following an extended stint as a film editor (he cut four Ridley Scott films, in fact), writer-director Haigh broke through himself in 2011 with Weekend, an intimate and unforced romance about two gay men falling in love the day after their one-night stand. Following his work on the well-received HBO drama and movie Looking, Haigh delivered another quietly devastating sucker-punch with 2015’s 45 Years, coaxing career-defining performances out of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tom Courtenay in the process.
Adapted from a novel by Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete lacks the subtle ticking clock structure of Weekend and 45 Years, so it’s not a surprise that the film meanders more than Haigh’s previous two efforts. For all the emotionally muffled repression of the characters in Weekend and 45 Years, those films felt tightly wound, while the first half of Lean on Pete is the kind of wandering, navel-gazing, dime-a-dozen indie movie that critics charitably describe as “austere” or “stark” or “exquisitely observed.”
Charley is a miserable 15-year-old boy who was long ago abandoned by his mother and sentenced to a lonely life with his impoverished and promiscuous father. While out running one summer day, Charley meets a crusty, bottom-feeding horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi), and accepts a low-paying job tending horses, including a rapidly deteriorating quarter horse called Lean on Pete.
Despite the advice of Del and a veteran jockey played by Chloë Sevigny, the boy immediately forms a bond with Pete, and the attachment only intensifies when a jealous lover puts Charley’s father in the hospital.
After the long, slow burn of the first half, Lean on Pete takes a Walkabout-like veer into the desert void, and like an old horse getting a sudden shock, the film finally comes charging to life. Abandoned and abused by everyone who should be caring for them, Charley leads Pete through an American heartland seemingly devoid of tenderness. That the film earns the emotional catharsis at the end of this miserable journey is a credit to the craft of Haigh and the raw power of Plummer.