If you’ve seen a “horse movie” before, you’ll probably think you know what to expect from LEAN ON PETE—namely a PG family-friendly tearjerker filled with cute kids and shiny horses that winds up being incredibly uplifting and life-affirming. But this isn’t just any horse movie—it’s an R-rated A24 horse movie directed by Andrew Haigh, one of the best working independent filmmakers, meaning it’s not going to be an easy ride to the finish line.
With LEAN ON PETE, Haigh joins an esteemed group of contemporary filmmakers (among them, Kelly Reichardt, Sean Baker, and the Safdie brothers) making sparse, loosely narrative, humanist films about the poor and the marginalized in the United States—people who are rarely shown on screen, especially not sympathetically (and definitely not realistically). The deeply textured works are populated by complicated, multidimensional characters who have been pushed to the edge by the circumstances beyond (and sometimes within) their control and make desperate decisions that threaten to push them all the way over, yet there are moments of transcendental beauty and light, however fleeting, that manage to peek through all the bleakness.
Working off a 2010 novel by Oregon-based writer/musician Willy Vlautin, Haigh (who penned the film’s script in addition to directing) tells the story of Charley (Charlie Plummer), a lanky, deeply lonely high schooler (15, or 16 or 18 when it suits him) who’s managed to turn out pretty normal in the face of a rough childhood. He’s sort of had to learn how to be responsible and self-reliant: Abandoned as a baby by his mother (a figure whose absence hangs heavy over the film), Charley lives with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), a hard-drinking, hard-living working-class guy who’s not too concerned with being a parent or keeping steady employment—he shows affection for his son, but he’s too screwed up and immature to offer much in the way of emotional support.
The two live a fairly nomadic existence, moving from dumpy neighborhood to dumpy neighborhood across the Pacific Northwest, leaving Charley feeling rather lonely by the time he starts at a new high school on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. One day his listlessness draws him to the local horse track, Portland Downs, where he runs into Del (Steve Buscemi), a low-rent, easily agitated horse trainer who begrudgingly agrees to hire Charley on to help with menial tasks. Charley quickly takes to his new sense of purpose and his surrogate family, which includes the gruff Del; his longtime jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny); and, most importantly, Lean on Pete, a 5-year-old quarter horse on his last legs (and thus his last chance).
As with previous projects like LOOKING and 45 YEARS, Haigh pays special attention to the details, drawing the viewer fully into the seediness of the outmoded and brutal world of horse-racing, where animals are worked to the bone, run into the ground, and sent off to slaughter as soon as they’ve outlived their glory days. Kindness is in short supply here: The humans who inhabit the circuit have been calloused to the cruelty of their ventures and have little room for sentiment, but Charley has a hard time handling the cruelty he slowly begins to catch onto. “Horses aren’t pets,” warns Bonnie, whose blue eyes betray a hint of sympathy and concern for the wide-eyed teen, if not his equine friend.
Del, too, has moments of kindness and concern for Charley, though that doesn’t stop him from deciding to sell off Pete after Pete loses a race. Charley, still reeling from losing his father in a horrific act of violence about a third of the way into the film, makes the snap decision to steal the horse and hit the road, bound for Wyoming where he believes a beloved aunt has taken up residence. Once the rickety old truck breaks down, Charley and Pete are forced to hoof it, and their travels take them through a wide-open, lonesome new west that’s gorgeously captured in lyrical, sweeping wide shots by Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (whose stirring work we’ll soon see in Jeremy Saulnier’s much-anticipated HOLD THE DARK).
As Charley and Del draw deeper and deeper into the desolate middle of nowhere, Charley’s actions become increasingly desperate, especially after the film’s jarring climax in which (spoiler alert) poor Pete gets spooked, pulls free from his harness, and runs right into traffic, where he meets a swift end. Left without a friend in the world, Charley still digs deep and trudges on, even as he finds himself completely homeless and still not anywhere close to his destination. His unfailing persistence continue to propel him forward in the face of unthinkable misery, just as he’s always done. It’s hard as hell to watch, despite (or perhaps due to) the compelling performances that fill up LEAN ON PETE, but it’s also a true testament to the human spirit.