Since it’s about a boy and a horse, Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete might at first lull you into a sort of audience complacency. The boy’s broke, his dad’s laid up and his equine pal Lean on Pete — a low-rent racing quarter horse — is starting to limp, which might spell its doom. Pete’s owner, a cranky jumble of nerves and swears and resentments embodied by Steve Buscemi, isn’t romantic about horses. His sometimes jockey (Chloe Sevigny) is a softer touch, but she reminds the boy, again and again, “It’s not a pet.” But the boy loves the beast, and if there’s one thing that the movies have taught us (other than that killing is the path to masculine actualization), it’s that no love is more sacred nor transformative than a young person’s for an animal. So you might think, in your theater seat, that you know where this story is going — that you can duck out to use the restroom or score some Goobers and not miss much before the finale jerks your tears.
You can’t. You shouldn’t. Writer-director Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) dashes expectations in almost every scene. Working from a novel by Willy Vlautin, Haigh has committed himself to making a boy-and-his-horse movie that’s scraped free of everything false or sentimental about the genre. Still, by the end, in its painstakingly observational way, Lean on Pete had devastated me twice and hung me there in a state of tense uncertainty for 30 or 40 minutes. You know how you can feel the act structure of movies in your bones and can tell how much movie is left based on how close the characters have come to achieving their goals and how many loose ends must be tied up? Haigh’s rhythms are singular, and Lean on Pete’s long back half stretches on with the harsh unpredictability of the Oregon/Idaho/Wyoming landscapes the boy and the horse trudge across. It’s harshly beautiful, liberated but deeply lonely. The worst happens, several times, but whenever it does the boy does all that any of us can do: He just keeps moving on.
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As the boy Charley (Charlie Plummer) gets lost, Haigh stirs in audiences a sense of lostness, too. He denies us our sense of certainty about where all this is headed. Charley’s state-crossing journey begins rather late in the movie, not at the moment you might expect, and from then on, Lean on Pete is untethered, drifting through the Northwest’s expansive scrub. (The land, as captured by director of photography Magnus Jonck, is as entrancing as it is foreboding.) Charley’s a quiet, rangy 15-year-old who’s no longer sure of anything except his destination and his love for this horse. On their trek, they encounter several sets of strangers, each of whom surprises in different ways: veterans of the desert war, homeless folks at a shelter, a young woman who is harangued about her weight by the grandfather she cares for. Even the happy ones seem stuck in their lives, penned in by circumstances, unsure what to do next. Unlike Charley, they know better than to believe that they can just hit the road.
Haigh and his cast excel at creating the illusion of lives that persist before and after we and Charley briefly enter them. Lean on Pete explores a world of racetracks and trailers and highway diners that the filmmakers just seem to have found rather than staged. Even the film’s more conventional first half, centered on Charley meeting Pete and Pete’s irascible owner, is alive with shrewdly observed detail and continual surprise. No character is simple; no interaction plays out as expected. Buscemi plays Del, the owner of six horses who races on the fairgrounds circuit. He takes Charley on as paid help on a whim, and then crabs and curses at the boy, on occasion exhibiting some warmth. Del pays Charley whatever amount seems fit to Del at any time — more when the horses win. Charley’s a hard worker who clearly could use a mentor, and Bonnie (Sevigny's character) takes a shine to him, buying him fairground treats and answering his questions about life as a female jockey. But she’s brusquely dismissive of his concerns for Pete, a horse that Del overworks and is just another loss or two from being sold off. Del, meanwhile, warns Charlie to find other work — to get out of this business before it’s all he has left.
Usually in the movies we’re asked to accept as truth a kid’s conviction that an animal is special. At the tail end of a screening of War Horse I attended in San Francisco, a teenager at the back of the theater shouted, as the music swelled and viewers sniffled, “It’s just a fucking horse!” Lean on Pete demands a hanky, too, but it doesn’t invite heckling, and nobody but the boy, in the film or in the theater, is expected to regard the horse as, like, magic. Pete’s just a horse, and Charley’s just a kid from a house with a roach problem so bad he has to keep his cereal in the refrigerator. He gets laughed off when he offers to buy Pete from Del. How would Charley feed or stable a horse? He makes, at most, $50 a weekend.
We see Charley grow up, some. Early in the film, he stands helpless in the face of an act of violence. By the end, he’s capable of brutality himself. He pants and wheezes when staring down tragedy, and he grows harder and savvier the longer he’s on his journey. He develops some hustle: He can work the streets of a new town until he finds work, despite his youthfulness. But he still struggles to admit the truth of his situation. Late in the film, he realizes something that viewers have likely been fretting over for several scenes already — rather than having a daring western adventure, Charley is, in fact, homeless. Haigh’s film, an intimate epic of the American underclass, suggests how easy it could be to slip into that state.