After his tenderly passionate debut Weekend and the strained marriage-in-crisis drama 45 Years – led by British New Wave icons Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling – Andrew Haigh continues his ascendancy into the upper tier of British screen talents with his third film and first transatlantic foray: an exploration of horse-rearing culture in the Pacific Northwest entitled Lean on Pete which, despite its divergent milieu from Haigh’s previous works, richly and evocatively expands on his earlier films’ themes of companionship, stability and the solemn dignity of love.
In Haigh’s adaptation of the Willy Vlautin novella of the same name, Charlie Plummer (previously seen as the ill-fated John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World) plays the introverted Charley whose nomadic life with his womanising yet loving father (Travis Fimmel) sees him transplanted to Portland, Oregon. On one of his solitary runs around town, Charley discovers a stable where the surly Del (Steve Buscemi) maintains and rears his collection of racehorses. Charley develops a bond with the ailing horse Lean on Pete that seems to represent at last a measure of stability for the young protagonist. But in the face of personal tragedy for Charley and Pete’s failing health conjuring the spectre of his sale and slaughter in Mexico, the boy and his horse abscond on the open road in search of security and a more permanent home.
Lean on Pete is marvellously moving, distilling the Black Beauty formula through the equine iconography of Americana and Pacific Northwest culture. The true charm of this work is its resolute avoidance of the sort of mawkish sentimentality that characterises other horse-centric films like Seabiscuit, while also staying away from any pretentious overreaching into themes of the mystical and the universal. Accordingly, Lean on Pete is more akin to an American homage to Ken Loach’s Kes, depicting a similarly loving and respectful non-anthropocentric relationship between human and animal that offers an escape from the rut of the protagonist’s life and a cure for their profound loneliness.
Charley views Pete as a creature of extraordinary dignity – refusing to ride him – and a possessor of a worldview entirely separate from the petty concerns and tribulations of the human world. By bonding himself with this figure of a co-existent yet separate natural order, Charley might glimpse some semblance of permanence in his continually uprooted life. To some extent, Pete might even signify a more reliable bond of family when compared to Charley’s broken home and his newfound symbolic parents Del the stable-owner and Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), the jockey. Ironically, Charley’s desire to preserve and protect Pete clashes with the repeated distinctions and warnings from Bonnie that Charley must not form an emotional attachment to an impermanent creature who will unavoidably either be put down when he can no longer win races or expire within a condensed lifespan. Lean on Pete therefore subtly prompts an interrogation of our alignment and empathy to a fragile yet endearing biodiversity.
This dilemma that the film poses is anchored by Charlie Plummer’s assured and mature performance, which netted the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress at the 74th Venice Film Festival. In many other young actors’ hands, the role of Charley could easily have been played as a cold and taciturn teenager, but Plummer instead manages to “lean” into the restless and soulful qualities of Charley, his initial wide-eyed wonder at Pete and the other racehorses helping to demarcate the embarkation of his journey in search of security and normality. Furthermore, Plummer is able to access the sort of emotional depth that is crucial for several life-altering scenes within the film. In the aftermath of an untimely and shocking demise, Plummer half gasps, half stutters whilst answering a police officer’s interview, evoking the final sequence of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips and making for a similarly stirring effect.