Drawn by English director Andrew Haigh from author (and muso) Willy Vlautin’s novel, this quiet, modestly powerful character piece offers a strong turn by star Charlie Plummer, but somehow feels just the tiniest bit simplified and sanitised.
Vlautin’s humanist tales typically try to find the inherent goodness in fringe characters stuck in desperate situations, and while there’s much here that rings true, it nevertheless doesn’t seem as altogether seedy as it really should be.
Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest we meet 15-year-old Charley (Plummer), an introverted teen living with his well-meaning but deadbeat dad, Ray (Aussie actor and one-time model Travis Fimmel), and struggling with poverty and hopelessness. By chance Charley meets cranky horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), who offers him work and the chance to travel around the local, down-home racing circuit. While Del has been cleaned up a bit (in the book he was dirtier and more dubious), Buscemi is good anyway.
Although he becomes friendly with jaded jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Charley is more moved by the plight of getting-on horse Lean on Pete, an old racer soon destined for the proverbial knacker’s yard. And any suggestion that Del is going to turn paternal evaporate when Charley decides to impulsively strike out to find a long-unseen Aunt with Pete, a state-hopping journey that proves complicated and hazardous for such a naïve kid and jumpy nag.
A most American film for an English director (Haigh’s previous pics recently include Weekend and 45 Years), this has fine playing throughout (Amy Seimetz, Alison Elliott, Steve Zahn) and a moving lead performance by Plummer, who captures the inexpressive young Charley’s pain, confusion and anger with few words.
And the horse? Well, it’s gorgeous.