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British director Andrew Haigh makes deeply emotional movies, but the feelings you might get from them aren't the cheeriest ones.

With Weekend, he captured the rush of two young gay men falling for each other while acknowledging they probably aren't going to last long as a couple. His followup -- 45 Years -- indicated that even happy marriages conceal devastating secrets.

Lean on Pete

86 Cast: Charlie Plummer, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Seimetz, Alison Elliott, Steve Zahn

Director: Andrew Haigh

Rating: R, for language and brief violence

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Thankfully, Haigh's movies are also more involving than depressing because he knows better than to ladle on the gloom. He's dealing potent subject matter, so he doesn't blast the soundtrack with oppressive music. He also reveals the most important information in quick flashes. If you aren't paying attention, hours of content will be confusing.

Haigh, working from Willy Vlautin's novel Lean on Pete, tweaks "boy and his pet" tropes in fresh and believable directions. Additionally, it helps that young leading man Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World) gives an unaffected performance that matches Haigh's clinical approach. Both know that things are going to get heavy, so there's no sense in bashing the viewers' skulls with sentiment.

Teenage Charley (Plummer) and his single dad (Travis Fimmel) have moved to Oregon because the latter has had a less than upwardly mobile career. Charlie's mother is out of the picture, and one can forgive his old man for his substandard housekeeping because he has taken the effort of looking after his son when no one else would. Obviously short of cash, but they live near a seedy-looking horse track. Staring at the horses gives Charley something to do when he isn't jogging or trying to help out his dad. He also discovers he can make a few bucks if he helps a trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi).

Because Buscemi is playing Del, it's a safe bet that he doesn't run an entirely legitimate operation. Del and Charley often leave immediately after races, and some of Del's horses don't leave the tracks with them if they don't win.

Del and experienced jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) have long since abandoned much in the way of emotion toward the sport or the animals who compete in it. Charley, however, bonds with a quarter horse named Lean on Pete and develops a sense of dread every time the 5-year-old horse competes, knowing that "being sent to a farm in Mexico" means something ominous.

Charley tries to save Lean on Pete, and unlike a lot of other movies of this type, encounters the sort of difficulties a 16-year-old would if he really did try to run off with a horse. The trip is more expensive than he can possibly grasp (Del may be more prudent than cynical), and rural Oregon is beautiful (nicely shot by Magnus Nordenhof Jonck) but not hospitable for Charley or Pete.

It also doesn't hurt that Haigh finds something redeeming about his characters, even if Charley can be foolish and Del underhanded. He takes an interest in Charley and tries to teach him some social skills that the lad's own father has failed to impart.

Because he can find moments of beauty in seemingly unlikely places, Haigh can tell satisfying tales even if he's not remotely interested in offering anything escapist. In his world, simply getting through life is a form of victory.

MovieStyle on 05/04/2018

Print Headline: Lean on Pete

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