As life becomes exhaustingly loud, I crave a quiet, soft drama to counter it. What better than a story of a boy and his horse? Lean on Pete is writer-director Andrew Haigh’s fourth feature, this time based on Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name. It’s a slow burn that follows young Charley (Charlie Plummer) and his trip across the American desert with his rescued horse Lean on Pete (or Pete for short). Along the way, Charley meets a slew of characters that shape his journey to find his aunt and, hopefully, a stable home.
The film feels like vignettes of archetypes turned on their heads. Charley’s father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), is irresponsible, trying to live a bachelor life without the bachelor practicalities. We’re introduced to him through a closed door, firstly as he’s in the middle of fooling around with a married woman, then yelling at Charley about a missing belt. It would be easy to assume that he’s not the nicest guy given his gruff demeanour, but when he sits down with his son, reminisces over his past flings and gives his son a great piece of advice (“The best women have all been waitresses at some point!”), it becomes evident that this is not a typical abusive trailer trash dad, just one who is a little selfish, definitely neglectful — but a man that Charley regards as a good father all the same.
Charley appears to have an affinity with horses, noting that there are stables when he goes for a jog around their new neighbourhood. When he visits, he meets grumpy old Del (Steve Buscemi), who might be one of the few people who can open with “Motherfucking cocksucking fuck!” and still manage to come of as endearing. He’s short and to the point, but he offers Charley a job helping him around the stables and promises to teach the kid the ropes. Del is the opposite of Ray in a lot of ways; he’s not as overtly kind, but he’s strict and offers Charley responsibility, something his father cannot. But Del doesn’t have Pete’s best interests at heart, feeding him ‘vitamins’ and overworking the animal. It’s difficult to figure out whether Del is a good guy or not, but it becomes quickly evident all the characters Charley meets are hard to box into movie-standard definitions of good or bad, but rather just people who are sometimes likeable and often disagreeable.
In a perfect example of such vignettes, we meet Mike (Justin Rain) and Dallas (Lewis Pullman) as Charley and Pete wander through the desert. Both have returned from war and spend their time playing video-games. Mike is kind enough to Charley, welcoming the boy into his home without a second thought and offering food, water and communications, but there’s also something pushy about him, especially when he takes Pete for a ride against Charley’s protests. When they’re visited by Mr Kendall (Bob Olin), they talk briefly about war and there’s a somber quiet amongst them, a distinct contrast to their loud, boyish antics when they play their racing games. It’s hard to figure out these characters because we’re just seeing a day in their life where they don’t have anything to prove or anyone to impress, like passing someone in the street and glancing at them out the corner of your eye. In the same vein, the stories Charley tells to Pete as they walk through endless sand and plants are small windows to his life; he longs for normality, to play football in school, hates the idea of his old schoolmates knowing his current status. Haigh, coupled with cinematographer Magnus Joenck, makes the wide expanse filled only with a stringy boy and his pet so beautifully watchable.
One thing that struck me was how much of a horse Pete is. Sometimes he’s staring off screen, sometimes he’s glancing at Charley, but most of the time he’s just there, being a horse, a vessel for Charley to confide in and feel a sense of purpose. As the film went on, I came to realise that I wasn’t so much attached to the horse as I was attached to Charley’s attachment to the horse. Part of this is due to just how enamoured I was with Plummer’s performance; he has a quiet, childlike innocence that is often hard to read, but when he sits next to his ailing father, trying to figure out what he should do without his dad, there’s a twitch of the eye and clenching of the jaw that suggests fear and frustration he’s yet to overtly express. But the thing with having such a quiet, calm character is that whenever they lose their shit, it’s very memorable. Charley gets angry twice: when Del dismisses his request to buy Pete, and when an alcoholic Silver (Steve Zahn) takes his hard earned money. Both scenes are well shot with intensity, although I found Silver’s scenes - and the third act as a whole - strangely melodramatic and out of tune with the rest of the film.
Unfortunately I think the film suffers from a longer running time than I felt was needed, ignoring multiple opportunities to wrap it up and it certainly strays into the overly dramatic towards the end. As much as I like Steve Zahn, his character felt like an afterthought and took screen-time away from Charley’s beloved aunt. But even after coming out of the cinema with gripes about the length and uneven tone, I found myself wandering the quiet streets of London, looking up at the stars and thinking about the boy and his horse.
- Xiao Tang