Lean on Pete (2017, A24, Curzon Artifical Eye, BFI and Film4)
Directed by Andrew Haigh, based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, featuring Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn and Steve Buscemi
Andrew Haigh has beautifully adapted Willy Vlautin’s brilliant and understated novel for the screen. Having read the book when it was released in 2010, I still have a strong fondness for Vlautin’s resonating story about adolescence, animal companionship and modern frontier America. British director Haigh ably takes up the mantle and visually realises Vlautin’s story with a dab hand. He captures some incredible open-country images of north-west America, particularly in twilight.
The story begins one summer, when a 15 year old boy named Charley and his father Ray end up in Portland, Oregon after a rough run of it. Despite his father’s propensity for attracting trouble, they have their eyes set on a fresh start. Charley discovers a racecourse while out jogging and is asked by a gruff horse owner called Del (played by Steve Buscemi) to help him change a tyre. Del then takes Charley under his wing so he can help out at the course in exchange for cash. Charley becomes attached to one horse named Lean on Pete (the name is never explained and neither does it need to be), but when the horse starts to lose races, Del plans to have it sent to Mexico to be killed. With a build-up of grief and anger, Charley takes to the road with Del’s truck and trailer, and Lean on Pete in the back. He heads for Laramie, Wyoming, where his caring Aunt resides – the only beacon of light left in his life as he sees it.
Having started out as a sort-of family drama, then evolving into a human-animal friendship story, it eventually turns out like a road movie. But whatever genre it fits into, Lean on Pete presents a very deep and emotional story. Like the novel, the feelings expressed in the film are very real and raw. It is wonderfully tender at times, but at other times it can be desperately harsh and brutal. But at the end of the day it is all about humanity. Charley is the beating heart of the story – the camera only ever focuses on him, and stays at a comfortable distance. He is a young man who by circumstance is dealt a really shitty hand in life. He appears to have a talent for football but his mother left him when he was very young and his father does not possess enough skills to hold down a job long enough to offer his son a chance for stability.
Charley is played with superb realism by Charlie Plummer (who was so brilliant in King Jack from a few years back). He is like any kid that age – loaded with a mass of teenage indifference, and so unsure of what to say or do in the presence of adults. His tough, vagabond lifestyle with his father is something that enables him to deal with the rough and tumble of working with Del and the subsequent life on the road with Lean on Pete. But at the back of it all, he has so much pent-up emotion, having not had enough people around to care for him while he was growing up. His relationship with the horse is so heart-rending and yet so subtle as to not overwhelm the picture. The horse is not anthropomorphised, he is just there hanging around being a horse. But Charley’s interactions with him are so real, it is impossible not to become intimately connected with the relationship they develop.
The story could have been so much more melodramatic than it turns out to be. Thankfully, there is a sweetness, an innocence and a vulnerability at its core, and there is an undeniable sense of hope and love to be extracted at the end. This was an outstanding film, and an incredible story that has now stirred my soul twice in my life. For this I am very grateful.
Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4.5/5
Disobedience (2017, Bleecker Street, Curzon Artifical Eye, Element Pictures, Film4 and FilmNation)
Directed by Sebastián Lelio, based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, featuring Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola
This drama is about forbidden love. In this instance, it is between two women in an orthodox Jewish community, set in London. As teenagers, Ronit (Weisz) and Esti (McAdams) are discovered in bed by Ronit’s Rabbi father. Ronit flees to New York and returns many years later to attend her father’s funeral. She is met with quiet disdain from the family and close members of the orthodox Jewish community. But soon Ronit and Esti find they still harbour feelings for each other and again fall into an affair; but Esti is now married to the Rabbi’s dedicated protégé Dovid (Nivola), their long-time childhood friend.
The film has a slightly downbeat feel to it, and there are few happy moments in it. The photography matches the overcast London skies, with soft light and muted colours. There’s a minimalist yet suitable score but also a pleasant theme song (‘Lovesong’ by The Cure), which is in stark relief to the otherwise sombre tone of the film. Actually, that was my favourite part of the film – it provided a welcome upbeat intermission. It’s not a bad film overall, and the cast are all excellent, especially the three leads, Weisz, McAdams and Nivola. And the story – based on the novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman – draws attention to a section of London society where strict religious protocols either result in ostracising one of their own (Ronit), or else traps them within a life not of their choosing (Esti), and potentially condemns their children to the same lack of freedom of choice. In this context, the ‘forbidden love’ is located in a matrix of faith and family and wanting to belong.
Disobedience is directed by Sebastián Lelio, the same director of the much acclaimed and over-rated A Fantastic Woman (reviewed earlier this year here), and like that film, it deals with prejudice towards someone because of their sexuality. Lelio wants the audience to be in no doubt who the victims are here, and he layers on the scenes of disapproval, ostracism and barely disguised intolerance, like painting a canvass with a trowel and using only two colours. And while we empathise with Ronit, and sympathise with Esti, the Orthodox Jewish Community is painted a little too one-dimensional for my liking. I think Lelio’s heavy hand is balanced by the nuanced performances of very experienced actors. If you like serious dramas with a contemporary message this isn’t a bad film to see. It is not a fun movie but it isn’t all negative either, and it ends in a thoughtful and hopeful manner rather than being entirely happy or entirely sombre. Which is nice, I think.
Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3/5