From National Velvet and The Black Stallion to this year’s The Rider, movies about kids and their horses stress the uniqueness of the bond. In Lean On Pete, the horse is a device for illustrating how rural American poverty chips away at the hope of its teenaged hero. Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel is an unexpected choice for the English director, even though the progress from Weekend (2011) to 45 Years (2015) showed his growing confidence filming exterior spaces away from urban centers.
Stuck with a kind but useless father after his mom walks out on them, Charley (Charlie Plummer of All the Money in the World) is a high schooler with no prospects stuck somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Running past a horse track one afternoon, he bumps into Del (Steve Buscemi), who pays him ten bucks to help him with a flat tire. This leads to temporary work on Del’s horse farm at twenty-five bucks a day – not great money but enough to keep him from starving, you’d think, but if so then why is Charley ordering more food than he should? His eye lands on Lean on Pete, a quarter horse with beautiful flanks but much talent for racing.
Haigh’s convention-flouting instincts are well-served by the source material. Despite Charley’s efforts, Pete doesn’t get better. Del threatens to ship him to Mexico, an outcome that calls to mind the fate of Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm. And Del doesn’t soften; his maliciousness actually deepens. Playing this alcoholic third-rater on the outskirts of the racing world, Buscemi is miscast, too urban to slip into tight jeans even when spitting Buscemi-isms like “Let’s switch – that one’s a pussy.” Slightly better is Chloe Sevigny as Bonnie, a jockey who dispenses advice, the strongest piece of which is, “Horses aren’t pets.” After underperforming again, Pete’s fate is sealed until Charley kidnaps him, setting off a journey through desolate countryside to – well, Charley doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to get caught and he doesn’t want to starve.
Some reviews have praised Lean On Pete for its unsentimentality, which astounds me. Charley spends the second half of the picture treating Bonnie as his angel savior, while a final scene between a relative heretofore unseen lets Charley — the audience — off the hook. But Haigh, to quote Nick Davis, continues defining and expanding his own aesthetic.
Lean On Pete is available on DVD or on streaming services.