Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Sydney Film Festival (17) - Rod Bishop reviews LEAN ON PETE (Andrew Haigh, USA)

Andrew Haigh
This is a hard sell. The reviews are glowing, but how to pitch it as anything other than a boy-and-horse film? Even the title is the name of the horse. It’s far more than a boy-and-horse film, yet a synopsis avoiding spoilers can’t convey the film’s essence – a teenager (Charlie Plummer) is living with his struggling father (Travis Fimmel) and starts working with low-level horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) and his jockey (Chloe Sevigny) before trying to save a racehorse headed for the scrap-heap.
Adapted from the well-regarded novel by Willy Vautlin, Brit director Andrew Haigh brings the talent he’s shown for character introspection (45 Years) to a film being compared with everything from The Grapes of Wrath, to The Black StallionThe 400 BlowsHuckleberry Finn and even Charles Dickens.
Charlie Plummer is often superb as the 15-year-old Charley, searching for a meaningful home and family life. It’s an example of the film industry term “break-through performance” and although some have mentioned James Dean, Plummer looks and acts more like River Phoenix in Running on Empty, his gaunt eyes, blond mop and soft-spoken manner create an often mesmerizing quietude.
Good as he is (and he’s in almost every scene), the supporting players more than hold their own. Aussie actor Travis Fimmel, playing a man who can barely hold his life together, let alone be a substantial father, tends to treat Charley as an equal rather than a son. Chloe Sevigny is commanding as the straight-talking, reality-checking jockey and Steve Zahn, the annoying well-meaning DJ Davis from Treme, gobbles up his small role as a drunken, violent homeless drifter. But the pick of the support cast is Steve Buscemi’s consummately believable and authoritative performance as horse-trainer Del Montgomery, his character described by others as ratty, seedy, cynical, crusty, irascible, grizzled, hardened, world-weary, washed-up, vulgar, bottom-feeder, cantankerous, well-humoured and disgustingly charming. You get the idea.
Charlie Plummer, Lean on Pete
Lauded for steering clear of cheap sentimentality, the film does come dangerously close when Charley is walking Lean On Pete through picturesque desert landscapes and chatting to the horse about the time a football team-mate took him home for dinner to a family who warmly welcomed him into their nice home; how much he laughed and enjoyed it and how they probably don’t remember him at all. It’s a jarring moment in a film that conspicuously avoids spelling out its dramatic text.
And we probably didn’t need reminding of the loneliness of the solitary figure and his horse in frontier Western landscapes. Charley and Lean On Pete are headed from Portland to Wyoming, the “Cowboy State” and the setting for Shane (1954), Spencer’s Mountain(1963) and Django Unchained(2012). And not just anywhere in Wyoming. Charley is specifically looking for home and shelter in the iconic Old Western town of Laramie, itself the subject of a Western television series (1959-1963) and the town James Stewart departs from in Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie(1955). Charley’s aching search for family also recalls Ethan Edward’s despondent quest for a family in The Searchers(1955). 
For all its hard grit, Lean On Pete probably draws more inspiration from the mythological West than it does from contemporary social realism.
Steve Buscemi (centre), Lean on Pete

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