When Andrew Haigh surveys the world, he sees its small, quiet stories. Peering deeply at everyday life, the British filmmaker finds tales that couldn't be more commonplace — and, as a result, are often simply overlooked. In queer romance Weekend, he spots two men meeting for the first time, connecting and spending three unforgettable nights together. In melancholic drama 45 Years, he gazes at long-married retirees taking stock of a past gone too quickly. And in Lean on Pete, he trains his soulful stare not only at a struggling teenager, but at the horse that the boy loves unconditionally.
That said, it's not just Haigh's willingness to tell these tales that makes his filmography stand out. It's how the writer-director explores these stories that's just as important, with his pictures overflowing with empathy. Haigh couldn't look more kindly, warmly and thoughtfully at the characters in his movies, especially Lean on Pete's 15-year-old protagonist Charley (Charlie Plummer). The lanky boy is someone that the world doesn't see, just like his beloved steed, whose winning days are long behind him. In patient moments that show the unspoken bond between teen and animal, in detailed wide shots that place them both within harsh surroundings, and in rare close-ups that make plain the pain in both of their eyes, Haigh notices, cares and feels for them both.
Lean on Pete isn't really Charley's horse. He belongs to trainer Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), but when Charley stumbles upon them at the local racetrack, the boy finds a kindred spirit in the ageing sprinter. As a respite from his desolate home life — where the dad he idolises (Travis Fimmel) is more interested in his job and girlfriend (Amy Seimetz) and regularly leaves the teenager alone in their ramshackle house— Charley begins to work for Del. While the boy doesn't shy away from hard tasks, it's Pete that keeps him coming back. Jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) tells him that "horses aren't pets", but that's not what Charley sees in Pete. Rather, he sees his first real friend.
With the film based on Willy Vlautin's novel of the same name, Charley and Pete aren't Haigh's original creations, however that's part of the point of Lean on Pete. Its protagonist is every person who's found more kindness on four legs than on two, every soul that's been cast adrift by society, and every child living in less-than-ideal conditions. And, when Charley's father ends up in hospital, the boy's already difficult life becomes even more so. When he takes off in Del's trailer with Pete in tow, hoping to find his estranged aunt, there's even more heartbreak in store.
The second of this year's stellar films about young men, desolate plains and caring animals (after fellow festival favourite The Rider), Lean on Pete is an exquisitely tender and affecting picture. Haigh's handling of loneliness, isolation and tragedy is raw yet delicate yet devastatingly authentic, in a movie that's always sensitive yet never sentimental. Scene by scene, it builds a compassionate portrait of life in the margins in America's midwest that dares to look where others don't. Assisted by lingering and visually striking observational shots by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (Hold the Dark), the film crucially doesn't avert its gaze when the going gets tough.
Of course, with Plummer to focus on, why would Haigh look away? Last seen being kidnapped in All the Money in the World, the young actor carries Charley's woes with few words but with a world of hurt evident in his every move — and with just as much love beaming from his face when Pete is by his side. It's another great internalised performance under Haigh's direction, and a portrayal that does what only the best can. Not only does Plummer feel like he's walked across America's heartland and straight into this film, but he makes it seem like he's not even acting. Haigh might see Charley, but his lead actor lives and breathes him.