Based on a book by Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete follows 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) as he begins working for Steve Buscemi’s grizzled Del and is subsequently drawn into the seedy world of horse racing. It’s clear almost immediately that writer/director Andrew Haigh isn’t looking to deliver a typical coming-of-age drama here, as Lean on Pete boasts a decidedly hard-edged sensibility that’s reflected in its various attributes – with the narrative’s surprising turns, which only grow more and more bleak as time progresses, certainly standing as the most obvious example of Haigh’s less-than-conventional approach. The movie does, as a result, succeed quite definitively as a slow-moving character study, with Plummer’s often astonishingly immersive turn as the sympathetic protagonist heightening the picture’s increasingly engrossing environment. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that Plummer’s superlative work is matched by a terrific supporting cast that includes Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn, and Alison Elliott.) The episodic midsection does suffer from a somewhat hit and miss feel, admittedly, and there’s little doubt that the movie’s midsection doesn’t fare quite as well as the first and third acts – although the grim trajectory ubdoubtedly does pave the way for a fairly riveting final stretch. The end result is a frequently stirring and occasionally tough-to-watch little drama, with the film, if nothing else, standing as an impressive showcase for a thoroughly talented up-and-coming performer.
*** out of ****