As the byproduct of a ‘90s childhood, it’s difficult not noticing the similarities between Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete and Free Willy even though attempting at a one-to-one comparison is all but moot point. The two may both feature young protagonists with missing mothers and generally unideal home lives who foster unexpected and deeply emotional connections to the animals that represent their freedom from burden despite the animal’s own captivity, but what Haigh accomplishes with Lean on Pete makes such a likeness superficial.
After all, one is an admittedly saccharine big-budget family film made for a wide audience, and the other is an independent R-rated drama whose maximum screen count is below 200. And while Lean on Pete may use protagonist Charlie’s (Charlie Plummer) kinship with the titular race horse as a core piece of this study of lost soul desperation, the film itself doesn’t particularly hinge on it like 12-year old Jesse’s friendship with captive orca Willy – at least, not in this story’s broader context.
The relationship between the two in Haigh’s film is merely a mechanism for emotional heft and tacitly explaining who Charlie is and how he reacts to the ever-worsening situations around him – even after one particularly expected plot point. And damned if it doesn’t work, particularly in a captivating, soul-crushing second half getting away with narrative decisions – and language – Free Willy could never fathom. It also makes up for a possibly overlong opening hour arguably saved by some strong performances, if also by the quietly bubbling tone Haigh sets.
Where Haigh’s adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s work perhaps lingers a touch longer than is necessary in a handful of scenes, Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Travis Fimmel nurture proceedings with tangibly real turns plucked out of America’s heartland, with Buscemi and Fimmel’s performances in particular never settling for rural American man clichés. They’re no-nonsense, straight-shooting men who may not be the most likable characters heading into a voting booth, but thanks to their respective performer’s professionalism, their schtick is never overbearing – it’s even oddly endearing in some circumstances.
As these four exercise some necessary restraint in front of the lens during these first 60 odd minutes, Haigh does likewise behind it. Lean on Pete’s story is one that fortunately doesn’t bludgeon its viewers with working class misery porn inside its structural familiarity, and Haigh complements its commitment to subtlety with gentle, yet brooding direction allowing the audience to meditate along with the film’s simple and frequently evocative visuals, as well as remaining at the ready to incisively hit the right pressure points whenever the drama hits the fan.
It may take the pace out of the storytelling almost completely, but we stay engaged because of Haigh’s sure hand and the promise of an explosive succeeding half. Despite some more habitual clinging onto particular scenes when it’s best to move forward, Haigh delivers on that promise. Reaping the rewards of our patience, we are made privy to the boiling culmination of Charlie’s escape from the world towards a new life as he wanders from one landscape to another in America’s rural mountain west.
Once again, Haigh pulls on our heartstrings only when the timing is right and doesn’t reduce these settings and its people to news media stereotypes, methodically moving from one location to another as if he were using this film as a vehicle for reminiscing over Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Though Malick’s aims were for the lyrical and Haigh’s eye remains for the naturalistic, the similarities couldn’t come in a more fitting project. Hell, Plummer may be playing a far different protagonist than Martin Sheen, but his performance in and of itself is just as charismatic.
This second half is when he really comes into his own as a young actor with a bright future, as well. Unlike the first half when he is the narrative focus from scene to scene, but must also reconcile this spotlight with his co-stars’ presences whether it be Buscemi, Sevigny or Fimmel, the second half sees his Charlie become the pure focal point in all asepects, requiring a resolute turn that deftly balances Charlie’s emotional anguish and persistent, emotionally-stifled cunning.
When the narrative needs him to step up, he does, loading each soulful monologue to Lean on Pete, in particular, with existential cues and relatable teenage angst. The universality of these feelings communicated so well by him, in addition to the temptation to take flight in the face of immediate trauma and Haigh’s execution, is largely why Lean on Pete resonates so soundly despite its narrative familiarity.
It may be slow and could do with about 10 minutes hacked off the final runtime, but Haigh’s direction exudes a calming presence that extends throughout the narrative and overshadows these mild frustrations. It’s the same relatively easy-feeling atmosphere he’s been practicing since Weekend and 45 Years, and it translates well to a product accommodating an expansive, almost soothing western aesthetic without actually being a western – much like Badlands, but far less cynical and violent.
The ending shot, however, does create its own alarming sense of ambiguity. We see Charlie run down a neighborhood street sporting a spiffy new haircut, seemingly and symbollically leaving behind a time of confusion and survival. He stops, looks around with an expression that may seem blank, but contains a covert sadness not noticeable at first glance. This book-ending may suggest that life has once more returned to normalcy, but can it, especially after what he’s endured?
The physical changes speak of optimism, but the face sings a different tune. The usual ‘what now?’ ending here possesses a heavier feeling of uncertainty than normal, but given how he survived on his own, there’s little reason not to hold out hope.