Based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, coming-of-age drama Lean on Pete is the latest feature from critically acclaimed writer and director Andrew Haigh. Set in Portland, Oregon, the plot centres around teenager Charley (Charlie Plummer) who lives with his down-and-out father Ray (Travis Fimmel) in a broken home. At the local racetrack, he meets wily trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and lands a job helping out with the horses. However, when tragedy strikes in his family and his favourite nag Lean on Pete suffers a setback, Charley takes drastic action that leads to dangerous consequences.
Haigh’s cerebral writing style offers a patient build up into the story, slowly establishing Charley’s character and how he interacts with those around him. He’s polite, hard-working and conscientious, and his relationships with his father and then Del, his secondary father-figure, are endearing. Scenes at the track are excellent, benefitting from the experienced performances delivered by veterans Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny, as Charley challenges the cut-throat nature of the sport. Unfortunately, the narrative discards the interesting dynamic for the second half of the movie as the protagonist’s journey takes an unexpected, and frankly futile detour.
Lean on Pete carries the sentimental signature that is becoming synonymous with the work of Andrew Haigh, but it is very much a movie of two halves. With an interesting premise, rich characters and strong performances, it flies out of the stalls in the opening act. Sadly, the harmful change of pace midway causes it to fall away towards the final furlong.