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.”
“Lean on Pete” calls to mind other greats as well — one imagines a pitch meeting where it was described as “The 400 Blows” meets “Wendy and Lucy” — but writer-director Haigh, working from the novel by Willy Vlautin, has his own way of telling this kind of story. While the film’s semi-picaresque, road-trip nature might seem antithetical to the maker of such intimate dramas as “Weekend” and “45 Years,” Haigh brings his gifts as a filmmaker with him to the great outdoors, always capturing little moments of character and emotion even in an expanse of seemingly infinite American desert.
Teenage Charlie (Charlie Plummer, “Boardwalk Empire”) has just moved to Portland, Oregon, with his ne’er-do-well dad Ray (Travis Fimmel). Mom is long-gone, and Charlie’s only other family is his loving aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, “20th Century Women”), who he hasn’t seen since childhood after she and Ray had a squabble about how he’s been raising Charlie. (When Charlie was 12, Ray left the boy alone for several days to spend time with a woman.)
Their new house is near a racetrack, and Charlie ingratiates himself with small-time horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi), working with him at the stable and traveling with him to seedy races on the state-fair circuit. Along the way, Charlie befriends Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a jockey who rides Del’s horses from time to time. Bonnie tries to tell Charlie that the horses aren’t pets, and that he shouldn’t get attached, but it’s too late — he’s already bonded with an aging Quarter Horse named Lean on Pete, even though the racer is coming to the end of his career, likely to be “sent to Mexico” (where horses can be legally slaughtered) once his use to Del has run out.
When the husband of Ray’s latest conquest beats Ray bad enough to send him to the hospital, Charlie has to elude Family Services while still earning money to keep up the household. But as Ray’s condition worsens, and Lean on Pete seems destined to be destroyed, Charlie steals Del’s truck in an attempt to save the horse and to look for Margy in Wyoming.
As you might imagine, Charlie’s journey gets more and more bleak as he faces starvation, thirst and eventual homelessness. But while “Lean on Pete” certainly has its dark moments, and its 119 minutes seem like it’s never going stop throwing obstacles in Charlie’s way, there’s ultimately a sense of hope here, much of it being communicated by Plummer, in an extraordinary performance. There’s so little calculation or actorliness in his work that I thought Haigh had found a 15-year-old non-actor; I was surprised to learn after the fact that Plummer is an experienced pro with an ascendant career. (When I saw the film at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, I had no idea that Plummer was about to play kidnap victim John Paul Getty III in “All the Money in the World.”)
The anguish and determination that Plummer can display with just a look or subtle motion is heartbreaking; this is the kind of naturalistic acting that can just kick you in the stomach. He’s part of a strong ensemble: Buscemi’s Del makes an honest mentor, but he doesn’t sugarcoat the character’s darker side. (And it’s fun to see the easy chemistry between Buscemi and Sevigny: she starred in his feature directorial debut “Trees Lounge” two decades ago.) Steve Zahn turns up as a mercurial homeless man who offers Charlie some help along the way, and Elliott (an indie stalwart since her breakout role in “The Spitfire Grill”) radiates a warmth that makes you realize why finding Margy is worth Charlie’s Herculean effort.
Haigh adjusts to a different kind of storytelling here: “Weekend” was fairly dialogue-heavy (as was, to an extent, his little-seen debut “Greek Pete”), and unlike “45 Days,” he can’t substitute dialogue with a meaningful glance from Charlotte Rampling. Still, he manages a lot of quiet here — with the exception of some exposition dumps that Charlie gives the horse in conversation — and his storytelling is no less powerful. Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Joenck (“A War”), also working in the States for the first time, collaborates with Haigh to place the characters into a very specific context, finding both beauty and horror in the American sprawl.
Your gut will be wrenched by “Lean on Pete,” but it’s also quite likely that your heart will be touched. It’s a powerful new entry for a director who is ever more deserving of attention, and it provides a spotlight for a talented young actor who would appear to be going places.
18 Dramatic Championship Sports Movie Moments: From 'Rocky' to 'Remember the Titans' (Photos)
"The Pride of the Yankees" (1942)
This beautifully dramatized moment of sports history, as wonderfully monologued by Gary Cooper, helped to immortalize the already infamous "Luckiest man" speech by Lou Gehrig.
In the ultimate underdog story, newcomer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) gets a shot at the world heavyweight title against champ Apollo Creed. Rocky proves he has the goods, going the entire 15 rounds against Creed, but loses in a split decision. Rocky would get a rematch though and win the title in “Rocky II”.
"Breaking Away" (1979)
One of the most inspiring underdog stories ever made, the Little 500 bicycle race in Bloomington, Indiana, is a local classic as made famous by this film. In the film's closing race scene, the locals -- dressed in plain white T-shirts with their nickname the "Cutters" -- upset the richer college students with more expensive bikes and uniforms, riding across the finish line in pure glory.
“Chariots of Fire” (1981)
Two Englishmen push each other to be the best sprinter at the 1924 Olympics. While they won gold on the big screen’s racetrack, “Chariots of Fire” would go on to win Oscar gold for best picture.
“The Natural” (1984)
Robert Redford plays middle-age rookie Roy Hobbs in “The Natural.” Hobbs leads his team to a championship on his final at-bat when he launches the most famous home run in movie history. Thus proving the unspoken rule in baseball: If you break the lights you win the game.
Another Indiana classic in what is widely considered one of the greatest sports movies of all time, “Hoosiers” follows a small town high school basketball team as they make it all the way to the state finals. They play a bigger and more athletic team in the finals, but with a last second shot pull off the surprise victory.
“Major League” (1989)
Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger lead an outfit of misfit Cleveland Indians from last place to a shot at the league pennant against the powerhouse Yankees. Even though the film is a comedy, the final game plays out in dramatic fashion.
“A League of Their Own” (1992)
“A League of Their Own” proved that girls can play baseball, and ends in a play at the plate that determines the championship. Geena Davis’ Rockford Peaches may lose that final game, but as Tom Hanks taught us, “there is no crying in baseball!”
Steve James’ revolutionary documentary follows inner-city Chicago kids William Gates and Arthur Agee throughout their high-school basketball careers. The film culminates in both striving to reach the finals of their city wide championship tournament.
“Remember the Titans” (2001)
Based on the true story of Virginia’s first integrated high school football team (led by coach Denzel Washington), the Titans not only change the views of an entire town, but they go undefeated on their way to a thrilling state championship against an all-white team.
“Friday Night Lights” (2004)
The film that spawned the critically acclaimed TV series (which in turn may spawn a film of its own) is memorable in that its featured team doesn’t win the championship. The Permian Panthers mount a great comeback, but come up one yard short of the state title.
In perhaps one of the greatest upsets in sports history, a team of U.S. college hockey players defeated the Soviet Union, the three-time defending gold medal winner and best team in the world, during the Cold War.
Okay, okay. This is really a parody of sports movies. But for all its send-ups of underdog sports movie formulas, it also embraces them full-heartedly during the gripping championship showdown between the Average Joes and Globo Gym.
“The Fighter” (2010) David O. Russell‘s Oscar-winning picture depicted boxer Mickey Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) climb up the ranks from middling contender to a shot at the title. The final fight shows the grit and heart that it took for Ward to win the belt.
The best sports documentaries are as riveting as their scripted counterparts, putting viewers right in the action as if they are watching it unfold live. "Senna" is one of the finest examples, using primarily archival footage with no narration and few interviews to show the bitter Formula 1 rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost that led to the 1989 and 1990 championships being decided in controversial fashion at Japan's famed Suzuka Circuit.
"Survive and Advance" (2013)
ESPN's "30 for 30" series included a look at arguably the most famous championship run in college basketball history. In 1983, Jimmy Valvano led the North Carolina State Wolfpack on a streak of nine consecutive overtime or one-point wins, culminating in a last-second basket to win the championship over top-ranked Houston. In this documentary, even though the outcome is known, every game's heart-stopping drama is recreated perfectly.
The power and hypnotic beauty of this famous running scene from "Creed" as directed by Ryan Coogler is immense. Michael B. Jordan captures the inspiring training run from the original "Rocky" with a modern spirit. You can feel the emotion of the moment so strongly and can't help but root for him.
"Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies" (2017)
Another ESPN documentary that puts you right in the moment. Narrated by Lakers fan Ice Cube and Celtics fan Donnie Wahlberg, this five-hour doc covers the most famous championship rivalry in sports, which peaked with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 80s. The tension hits its peak with Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals, in which Bird infamously missed a game-tying three-point shot.
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Whether it’s the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, TheWrap recaps the biggest moments in these sports classics