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Andrew Haigh’s sad and lovely new film Lean on Pete is adapted by him from the 2010 novel by American author and alt.country musician Willy Vlautin. It’s got the wonderfully easy, unforced naturalism and calm that distinguished his last two films, Weekend (2011) and 45 Years (2015). Things are taken mostly at a walking pace, a measured, controlled tempo, like someone carefully leading an injured horse. That doesn’t mean to say there aren’t some dramatic and violent moments, including a fateful highway incident, fabricated brilliantly but unobtrusively with digital effects, that had me clasp both hands over my mouth in shock.
A lonely teenage boy, Charlie (Charlie Plummer) finds himself one summer in a dilapidated house in Portland, Oregon, having been uprooted from his Washington state hometown, where despite his poor background he had been a good student and promising track star. He’s right back to square one now, and the move evidently has something to do with a broken home. His mom is no longer in the picture and his handsome wastrel of a dad, Ray (Travis Fimmel), is a shiftless guy who brings home a different woman every night. Charlie finds transient work at a nearby racecourse, working for a seedy and unscrupulous horse trainer called Del (Steve Buscemi) who is too bad tempered and cynical to be even an ironic father figure.
Charlie is entranced by the excitement and exotic rituals of horse training; he befriends Del’s jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), and mutely sympathises with her stoic complaints about this corrupt and misogynistic scene. Both Bonnie and Del are amused and yet worried about Charlie becoming so infatuated by a world that can only end for him in the heartbreak and failure they see in their own lives.
And Charlie finds himself falling for Del’s sweet-natured and biddable racehorse Lean on Pete. This equable beast is very good for teaching newbies like Charlie – Del brutally calls him a “pussy”. But he is also, ominously, getting slower. Losers like Lean on Pete get sold to horseflesh dealers in Mexico, a fate that doesn’t need to be spelled out. And when Pete becomes injured one afternoon – Charlie abbreviates his name in a way that poignantly emphasises reliability and strength – horse and boy become runaways.
The movie takes us across some classic American landscape but it isn’t quite in the tradition of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy – nor is it like, for example, Chloé Zhao’s recent film The Rider. Importantly, Charlie can’t and won’t ride Lean on Pete. In fact, the theme of the poverty-stricken youngster finding friendship, love and transcendent dignity in the company of a martyred animal is part of a different tradition – the British social realist line stretching from Ken Loach’s Kes to Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant. In some ways, the British film-maker Haigh has exported this style to the American West. Lean on Pete has an alt.socialrealist twang. But where his movie departs from that style is in the construction of narrative, and the unexpected way in which the relationship of horse and boy is perhaps not as central and dominant as we might otherwise expect. The meaning and presence of Lean on Pete is mysterious. I found myself thinking about the donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).
Haigh has a masterly way with mood and moment, with the play of light on a scene, and with a robust shift from fierce sunshine to sombre night-time. Everything looks scuffed, worn, broken down; perhaps the only things that are cared for are the furniture and fittings of the diners that Del and Charlie show up in. Del’s horses are trained by being made to walk in a circle attached to a rotating maypole contraption that looks ironically like one of the rides at the tatty old fairground races where Lean on Pete usually runs.
Plummer gives an excellent performance: watchful, sensitive, delicate and yet possessed of a survivor’s impassive quality. Fimmel is also very good in a role that is perhaps smaller than I expected. Buscemi is as robust and confident as ever and Steve Zahn is also strong in a small role as a homeless alcoholic guy. My only slight reservation is that Lean on Pete, though running to an affecting conclusion, maybe doesn’t deliver the final sting or narrative turn that marked out his previous film, 45 Years. Yet perhaps its simplicity and plainness is the whole point.
Source: The Guardian
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