TIFF Day #3: Searching for Home in “Lean on Pete” and “House by the Sea”

Charlie Plummer as Charley, in "Lean on Pete"
Charlie Plummer as Charley, in “Lean on Pete”

My third day at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was one of unexpected gifts.

The first surprise was largely my fault:  in scanning the synopsis for Lean on Pete, I expected a heartwarming “boy and his animal” tale, a contemporary Old Yeller (though hopefully with a brighter ending for the critter).  The realization that Lean on Pete was directed by Andrew Haigh should’ve warned me that something different was waiting.  After all, he’s the British filmmaker who brought us 45 Years, the 2015 movie with a brutal take on marriage and the secrets it can conceal.

Lean on Pete opens with 15 year old Charley and his dad Ray just having relocated from Spokane to Portland.  Ray is a good-hearted fellow who banters easily and affectionately with Charley, but is often guided more by libido than paternal duty, disappearing for a day or two at a time on romantic flings.

During one of these absences, Charley discovers a nearby racetrack and picks up some piecemeal work from Del, a crusty, profane horse-owner.  As a high school runner, Charley develops a particular affinity for Lean on Pete (or Pete), a sprinting quarter horse that Del is on the verge of selling to a Mexican slaughterhouse.

And here things take a twist for the worse:  Ray is beaten nearly to death by the husband of his new lover, and facing a long hospital stay with zero income, he urges Charley to keep working.  Soon after, Del tires of Pete’s losing ways and tells Charley to load him in the trailer for the slaughterhouse.  Instead, Charley impulsively steals Del’s pickup and takes to the road with Pete.

Director Andrew Haigh, despite his British origins, has a keen eye for Americans living on the fringe of society, those who are only separated from homelessness by a single paycheck or racetrack payout.  Stepping out of his mob guy roles, Steve Buscemi plays Del with an entirely believable unsentimental roughness.  Steve Zahn also walks away from his typecasting as a lovable doofus to play Silver, whose initial support and advice for the wandering Charley take an ominous turn.

As best I can recall, Charley is in every scene of this film, so Lean on Pete rises or falls by virtue of young Charlie Plummer’s performance.  And, lordy, is he excellent.  Plummer gives Charley an utterly convincing mix of guilelessness, resilience, fear, and knife’s edge hope.  His open-faced innocence cannot fail to grab the heart of any parent watching, as will his hyperventilating sobs in moments of crisis.

This was a tough film to watch, as there are many dark turns for Pete and Charlie.  (I was reminded more than once of Odysseus’ journey across the Aegean Sea towards Ithaca.)  Roaming across the picturesque scrubland of Oregon in quest of a mother figure who may save them, survival is hardly guaranteed in their heroes’ journey.

Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Derroussin, as siblings Angele and Joseph, in "The House by the Sea"
Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Derroussin, as siblings Angele and Joseph, in “The House by the Sea”

Yesterday’s other pleasant surprise was French director Robert Guediguian’s The House by the Sea.  Despite a career spanning over 35 years and 19 movies, this is the first film I’ve seen by Guediguian.  But, to sound a bit clichéd, after enjoying the merits of this film, it won’t be my last.

In hearing his introduction at TIFF and reading his CV, Guediguian has hewn closely to his Marseille roots and leftist sympathies across his directing career.  The House by the Sea is no exception, set in a small village on a bay from which Marseille is visible.

His newest film opens with the family patriarch Maurice (Fred Ulysse) suffering a stroke that brings his three children back home.  Actually, his son Armand (Gerard Meylan) has never left, taking over the family restaurant when their mother died and their father became too infirm to manage it.

Angele (Ariane Ascaride), on the other hand, hasn’t been back in 20 years, ever since her daughter Blanche died in a drowning accident.  Effectively ending her marriage, too, Angele has since immersed herself in work as a stage and television actress.

Joseph (Jean-Pierre Derroussin) occupies a middle ground between Armand and Angele, periodically returning home when his career as union organizer and professor permitted.  Accompanying him is Berangere (Anais Demoustier), his student turned lover whose ardor is clearly on the wane.

The interplay among these characters is handled beautifully, as they come to terms with their father’s legacy in each of their lives.  Maurice was a Communist who consciously created a restaurant that served tasty local food to village workers at prices they could afford.

Each child has carried on Maurice’s ethos in their own way, despite some faltering.  Joseph’s idealism has lately yielded to cynical depression, and Angele’s lingering grief has diverted her commitment to political theater.  Coming together again gives them a chance to reassess their current situation, ironically aided by the fact that Maurice’s stroke has rendered him unable to communicate.

Their homecoming also permits reflection on the changes to their village.  A once lively square – shown in flashback to a communal Christmas party – has yielded to wintry silence, as most homes have been converted into summer rentals for the affluent.  Occasional searches by the French military signal that refugees from across the Mediterranean are the newest guests to the region.

The dialogue, co-written by the director, sometimes has a theatrical quality to it, which I suspect is intentional; in the Q&A following the screening, he spoke of his indebtedness to Beltolt Brecht and Anton Chekhov.  This contrasts with the gritty quotidian of many visuals, as a neighbor cleans a fish for supper, Armand clears a mountain trail, and Angele dips a leg into the sea to catch an octopus the old-fashioned way.

All of this combines into a story with goodness, charm, and occasional humor.  Guediguian has delivered an empathically humanistic film that challenges viewers to consider how to apply their ideals to the expanding circles of family, our inevitably changing communities, and international crises across the sea.

Both films:  4 out of 5 stars

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