“British filmmaker Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) hits the American highway for this touching, if slightly underwhelming, tale of a troubled boy who strikes up a rapport with an ailing racehorse called Lean on Pete,” begins Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “This good-nature four-legged friend can't arrive quickly enough for fifteen-year-old Portland teen Charley (Charlie Plummer): his mum is long gone, a loving aunt is nothing but a preoccupying memory and his well-meaning but wildly erratic dad [Travis Fimmel] is hardly a thoroughbred in the parent stakes.”
“Charley works as an assistant to Del, a grizzled old trainer who is played by Steve Buscemi in the sort of role that would once have gone to Burgess Meredith or Ernest Borgnine,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “Rounding out the team is Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a bruised, cynical jockey, periodically forced to supplement her winnings with waitress shifts at Red Lobster. One day, she says, she will have to give it up altogether. ‘There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.’ Adapted from the novel by Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete is at its potent, stirring best during the opening furlough, when it focuses on this makeshift hobo family as it criss-crosses the Pacific Northwest from one racetrack to the next.”
“Charley’s tentative stability is whipped away by his father’s sudden death,” writes Jessica Kiang for the Playlist. “Though shot with a kind of glowy restraint by DP Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, and marked by Haigh’s facility for achieving resonance through reserve, until this point the narrative has been familiar enough, and the stage would seem to be set for the kind of learning-curve American odyssey in which time-honored rite-of-passage lessons about Friendship, Loyalty and Responsibility are learned. But this is that story with all the sentimentality precision-syringed out, and what’s left is an increasingly hard-edged, occasionally harrowing journey through hardship and loss, toward destitution.”
“What Lean on Pete is not is a children’s movie, or a crowd-pleaser, or an uplifting coming-of-age story,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge. Instead, “it’s a serious-minded, unvarnished glimpse into how it feels to be fifteen and completely alone in the world. But instead of playing that situation for sympathy, Haigh takes the Bressonian high road, adopting an austere, arm’s-length style that keeps the audience at an uncomfortable distance from the character.”
“Haigh, however, isn’t a sadist,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “and he doesn’t forget the John Steinbeck quote that Vlautin used as the epigraph for his novel: ‘It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.’ The film isn’t as punishing as it sounds. It’s slow, borrowing Kelly Reichardt’s pacing in addition to her usual milieu (Wendy and Lucy fans will be very comfortable here), but the story is propelled by its moral velocity, by the friction it finds between its characters.”
“There's not a false note in the performances,” finds David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “Neither Sevigny's sleepy-eyed, seen-it-all detachment nor Bonnie's willingness to shrug off Del's disreputable tactics preclude her genuine, big-sisterly affection for Charley. And Buscemi, while probably nobody's idea of a grizzled horseman, imbues the foul-mouthed character with an amusing sourness and a begrudging concern for Charley that offset Del's less admirable qualities.”
Alonso Duralde at TheWrap: “When a European director makes his or her first movie in the United States, you can pretty much rely on two things: the camera’s awe at the wide-open spaces and big skies, and a downbeat story of how the Land of Opportunity so often lets its most helpless citizens fall between the cracks. So on the American Miserabilism shelf at your local shuttered video store, you can put Andrew Haigh’s powerful and poignant Lean on Pete alongside such other classics of the genre as Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.”
Updates, 9/2: “Sometimes I found myself itching for Haigh’s film to let down its own guard a little, but perhaps that itch is part of Haigh’s strategy,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “If this story of a lonely young life lived on the hoof leaves us craving stillness and closeness, then surely that’s mission accomplished.”
“Pretty soon, Charlie Plummer’s image will be ubiquitous,” predicts Ed Gibbs at Little White Lies. “The Boardwalk Empire regular, soon to be seen in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (as John Paul Getty III), has a wise-beyond-his-years quality about him that grounds his nuanced performances. . . . Plummer’s performance, which is never less than assured, helps glue together the more disparate elements and characters of the film.”
“The coming-of-age tale has more in common tonally with Francis Ford Coppola’s teen movies The Outsiders and Rumble Fish than with Haigh’s previous films,” finds Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. “Alas, Lean on Pete falls at the final fence into a saccharine puddle, having raced on such good footing.”
Updates, 9/3: At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor suggests that “for every Paris, Texas there is at least one This Must Be the Place. Andrew Haigh, whose films to this point have been drenched in the authenticity of his British midlands locales, might have fallen victim to this particular juju and gotten tipsy on all that rural iconography. Indeed, large portions of . . . Lean on Pete, while exquisitely photographed, are devoted to admiring those stunning vistas, but you might be left wondering what happened to the plot.”
“Plummer’s is one of the most striking breakthrough performances of the year,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “He delivers it in a modest scale, though—befitting the rest of Lean on Pete’s spare simplicity.”
For Thomas Humphrey at ScreenAnarchy, “even if Haigh probably was really rather busy on a wide array exciting projects over the last few years, this is certainly a disappointing misfire from both him and Film4.”
Cineuropa’s posted a video interview with Sevigny (3’48”).
Update, 9/6: “Pete is no Balthazar, but Charley is some kind of Mouchette, even if Haigh never achieves a transcendent payoff thanks to some darker narrative turns that unforgivingly desert both,” writes Jay Kuehner for Cinema Scope.
Update, 9/8: “After 45 Years, Haigh proves once again how good he is at mixing genuine feelings (when two people truly connect, through friendship or love) and harsh cruelty (when life refuses to turn out the way we would want it to),” writes Erwan Desbois for the International Cinephile Society.
Updates, 9/15: “An unvarnished neorealist trudge, Lean on Pete unfolds unsparingly and unsentimentally,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “I grimly admired the crushing way that it sidesteps romantic baloney at almost every turn, including subverting whatever assumptions we might have about the ultimate role Buscemi’s surrogate father figure might play. What we’re watching, ultimately, is less ‘boy and his horse’ than ‘boy and the one emblem of purpose keeping him from tumbling into an abyss of despair.’”
It’s “a contemplative portrait of American loneliness and financial struggle that ends up more like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy than The Black Stallion,” writes Michael Koresky for Film Comment. “Haigh never makes like he wants to impress, forgoing big, standalone shots and self-conscious compositions, instead allowing the images to simply move the story along from one location to the next. Also refreshingly, he completely avoids anthropomorphizing the animal in any way: it’s noteworthy how studiously he leaves out any horse reaction shots, never leading the audience to buy into Lean on Pete’s essential ‘spirit’ or adorability.”
“And then,” writes Paul O’Callaghan for Sight & Sound, “a moment of blissful catharsis, as we observe our hero’s literal first steps on the road to recovery. The choice of accompanying song—a cover of R. Kelly’s ‘The World’s Greatest’ by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Old Joy star Will Oldham)—is inspired. Stripping away the original’s bells and whistles, Oldham transforms a saccharine pop tune into a soaring folk ballad. So it is that Haigh has rearranged the building blocks of mawkish teen melodrama into a bracing and bittersweet coming-of-age fable.”
Update, 9/24: “A particular standout sequence finds Charley’s father (Travis Fimmel) synechdochally apologizing that he only has a few dollars to give his son while he’s out of town, a moment that absolutely wrecks you with its unassuming authenticity,” writes Luke Gorham at In Review Online. “This is cause for frustration, then, as the film’s final third indulges in more histrionic tics, a la The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Had Haigh not established such lofty expectations with his two previous films, criticisms here would likely be less keenly felt. Lean on Pete remains an affecting, if faltering, diversion.”