The Road Trip Movie is one of the staples of American cinema. Some are funny, while others are terrifying. A few are dramatic or romantic. Most of them feature beautiful landscapes and miles of open road.
“Lean on Pete” is an entirely different sort of film that falls into the road trip sub-genre, but isn’t like other films in that group. It is the story of a lonely teenager named Charley who finds solace and a sort of camaraderie working at a low-rent race track outside of Portland, Oregon. There, he finds himself drawn to an aging racehorse named Lean on Pete. After Charley’s world falls apart and he learns Pete is to be sold, he takes the horse and the two embark on a cross-country journey in search of solace with an aunt he hasn’t seen in years.
Charlie Plummer stars as Charley. He had appeared in a few short films and some TV episodes before landing roles on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Granite Falls.” Last year, he starred as the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in “All the Money in the World.” That film brought a lot of attention to the rising young star. In “Lean on Pete,” Plummer’s performance is understated. His onscreen Charley is a sad, isolated, introverted kid. He has been left to his own devices too often by a single father who is always looking to fill his own personal voids.
What Plummer does with this film seems fairly simple and straightforward. He is quiet, and when he must speak it often comes out in mumbles. He contemplates a lot and spends a good deal of time watching those around him, rarely interacting. Sometimes a quiet performance can seem a little boring, but that is not the case here. Plummer draws the audience into his world. Even when he makes the head-scratching, illogical decisions of a teenager, it’s impossible not to yearn to reach out and help him. To love him and bring him into the safety of home. Plummer does that. He makes you care about him, not because of the writing or the story, but simply because he embodies the role so fully.
Supporting players flit in and out of the story. Once they are gone, they remain gone. Just glimpses of people that have helped or hurt Charley along the way. The performances are good in the moment, but a bit forgettable. Steve Buscemi is the cantankerous Del Montgomery who gives Charley a job at the track. Charley clings to him as something of a father figure, because he provides guidance the boy craves from his own father. That father, Ray, is played by Travis Fimmel, who is also good. But Ray is mostly memorable for his part in the story, rather than for anything Fimmel does with his character. And Chloë Sevigny is Bonnie, an old friend and counterpart of Del. She is kinder to Charley, trying to help him navigate his woes. But, like all the rest, she vanishes from his world as quickly as she entered it.
Andrew Haigh adapted the script from the novel by Willy Vlautin. He also directed the film. Haigh is thoughtful in his approach to the story, allowing certain scenes to linger. He allows Charley the time he needs to think through his steps. Time to build his fleeting relationships with temporary characters, and with the audience. These scenes are careful and intentional, without feeling overplayed.
Other elements come together in just the right ways. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck brings you into the dusty, impoverished lives of the characters. It also serves to highlight the loneliness Charley experiences in such vast, open spaces. From the Pacific Northwest and across the plains, Jønck captures the despairing beauty of a part of the country that is rarely explored on film.
“Lean on Pete” is a film that takes its time, and asks you to do the same. It is one that requires thought and some patience. And that patience is rewarded with an ending sequence that feels like the peace that comes at the end of a very long day.