SXSW Review: ‘Lean On Pete’ Packs Humanity For Hard, Rewarding Journey

Review by Preston Barta

Lean on Pete (4 stars)
Rated R, 121 minutes.
Opens in Dallas on April 13.

A24, the indie distributor that’s been nothing but on a roll since they came onto the scene five years ago, has six titles they’re screening at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year. (I plan to see most, if not all, of them.) Spearing their slate is Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh’s American odyssey that follows in the tracks of a teenager (a very good Charlie Plummer of All the Money in the World) and the horse he comes to care for, the titular Lean on Pete.

Right out of the gates, Haigh (director of 45 Years), who introduced the film at the opening night screening, spoke of how difficult the film was to market and how grateful he is that A24 took the reins. If you’ve seen the film’s trailer (see below), it has all the markings of a story you may be familiar with: A boy and his horse, he wants the horse but can’t afford him, takes him before he ends up in the wrong hands, and all of the trials and tribulations they face because of that decision. Only those trials and tribulations aren’t the same as you’ve seen in more family-friendly movies.

Lean on Pete is not a family film. Its R-rating and A24’s involvement should be a tell-tale sign that the film is not what it seems to be. Thinking about what all happens in the narrative and where it ends up, I couldn’t agree more with Haigh’s opening statement. Where do you even begin with marketing a film that makes you think it’s one kind of a film, but winds up being another?

Lean on Pete is an oddly comforting and grueling experience. On one hand, the way the film is shot, primarily with long takes and wide shots to get a feel for the space and atmosphere, allows the viewer to exist in the story along with the characters. Everything unfolds in a manner that doesn’t feel broken up. It flows quite organically and doesn’t necessarily fit into the traditional American narrative, and that’s an admirable quality. However, the film will also test your limitations.

Plummer, who also spoke before the film commenced, told audiences to hurry up and eat their Alamo Drafthouse (the film screened at the Lamar location in Austin, TX) meals because the content may cause the food to rise. Upon hearing that, I thought the worst things imaginable were going to happen. While there are some tense moments, especially one that will make or break the movie for audiences, it’s nothing viewers shouldn’t be able to handle. It’s by no means an easy watch from beginning to end, but it’s all necessary for the boy’s journey.

Ultimately, Lean on Pete feels like a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn. Both central characters take off with other characters they feel should not be in the situation they’ve been dealt. Both go on an adventure across the lands and have encounters with even more characters that shape them or challenge their morals. It’s a story of lives intersecting and diverging. Though it may require some distance and a good “pick me up” afterwards, you will appreciate the way it subverts your expectations and feels authentic to the human experience. You know, like all of A24’s films.

Lean on Pete will have two encore screenings on Sunday at 6:15 p.m. and Wednesday at 2:15 p.m. Visit sxsw.com for all details.

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