- Lean on Pete
- Written and directed by Andrew Haigh
- Starring Charlie Plummer and Steve Buscemi
- Classification 14A; 121 minutes
For a film heavily marketed as an archetypal, heartwarming tale of a boy and his horse, Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is welcomingly less saccharine than its trailer suggests. While the film’s first stretch may have undertones more fitting of The Black Stallion than the studied introspection of the human condition that Haigh has come to be known for (45 Years), it is the cautious intensity of Charlie Plummer’s Charley Thompson which carries us through to some of its more potent moments.
Adapted from Willy Vautlin’s 2010 novel, Lean on Pete follows young Charley, a soft-spoken teen living in Oregon with his father Ray, a stereotypical deadbeat dad given a slightly more multifaceted turn by actor and ex-model Travis Fimmel. Subsisting in poverty and reliant on Ray’s many “girlfriends” to provide the rarity of a home-cooked meal, Charley takes a job at the Portland Downs doing grunt work for a low-level horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi). It is there he meets Lean on Pete, a sprint horse who has faded beyond use due to the gruelling pacing and clandestine doping brought about by Del and his world-weary jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny).
You can see where this is going. As the threat of sending Pete to Mexico looms closer (will there ever be a horse movie made that doesn’t hinge on the omnipresent fear of pony meeting figurative glue factory?), Charley makes a break for it, horse in hand, and what follows is an episodic venture through the working-class vistas of the Pacific Northwest. With this, the film becomes more sure on its legs – particularly after what should have been strong performances from heavy hitters Buscemi and Sevigny, but instead served mostly to run narrative paces (Buscemi as a surrogate father, Sevigny as a surrogate pragmatist) for Charley and Pete. The duo emerge as the film’s sole figures for a heavy stretch that too often relies on the strength of cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s sprawling panoramas at the expense of original dialogue for Plummer (whose performance in the last act sees him surface as a relatively promising newcomer, given meatier material to work with). Soon enough, it becomes painfully obvious that the film is at its best once – spoiler alert – it divests itself of its titular quarter horse.
With its quietly picturesque landscapes of working poor America and focused gaze on those struggling within its interiors, many might draw comparisons to Andrea Arnold’s festival favourite American Honey; but where fellow Briton Arnold’s knack for portraying the nuanced humanisms of precarity translates across the pond with ease, Haigh’s first U.S.-set picture falls short, stopping just shy of poverty porn. To make a film about the impoverished that grants a full spectrum of characterization to just one person lies discomfitingly close to forwarding a misguided myth of exceptionalism. Being a child without home and family, of course, elicits an instinctive sympathy that guides our perception of Charley. However, as he encounters similarly positioned people along his way, there is a sense that he is, in some way, for some reason, an outsider.
We feel vindication as he violently retrieves his stolen pay from Silver (played by a wonderfully cast Steve Zahn), a quasi-displaced addict who had taken Charley under his wing; we are relieved when an overworked waitress lets him go after he’s caught attempting to dine and dash; we align ourselves with his easy distance as he listens to a man who has taken him in spout off racist vitriol and verbally berate his doting daughter. What exactly is it that places Charley so foreign to these people who are, quite clearly, cut from a kindred social cloth? Who have lived through comparable traumas (and then some)?
Charley’s desperation and moral missteps are played directly to our sympathies, but to be anyone else acting from within the same societal margins is to be an obstacle, a negative example, a teaching moment, a reminder of the promise of faith and goodwill, and, most clearly, a short stopover on his road to social salvation.
The effortless richness of character that so thoroughly grounded Haigh’s Oscar-nominated 45 Years and his critical darling Weekend is half-heartedly formed in Pete. There is a disquieting sense that the director has fallen prey to the poetics of space at the expense of the lives within it. In truth, thinking about the folks whom Haigh has left behind on Charley’s journey is perhaps what cuts most through the naive palatability of the film. If not, Bonnie (Prince) Billy’s cover of R. Kelly’s The World’s Greatest will likely do the trick in a pinch.