One Boy And His Horse
After the critical success of 45 Years, huge anticipation surrounded Andrew Haigh’s next project. Lean On Pete arrives at the London Film Festival complete with a head of steam from Venice, where its star Charlie Plummer won the award for best young actor or actress.
The director has moved from the confines of small, intimate English dramas to the wide, barren expanses of America for what might appear to be a coming of age story. It’s actually more of a picaresque tale, one about a young boy searching for his family and a place to belong. And it’s about his relationship with the horse that gives the film its title. Fifteen year old Charley (Plummer) has never lived in one place for long – his dad (Travis Fimmel) is a charmer with an eye for the ladies – and they’re now in a cockroach infested house in Portland. The teenager discovers some nearby stables, where he gets a job working for Del (Steve Buscemi) and becomes attached to one of his horses, Lean On Pete. But the racing world is a harsh one and when the horse has lost one too many races, Charley decides to save him from the inevitable. Together, the two go on the run.
This being Haigh territory, the boy goes on an emotional journey as well as a physical one. And, with the exception of the horse, it’s one he has to cope with by himself because, in the main, the adults around him either aren’t up to it or don’t want to know. His father’s wandering eye results in a violent encounter with an angry husband that puts him in hospital. Del initially has father figure potential – he tells Charley off about his table manners, he gives him a job – but it’s not going to happen. Because beneath that gruff exterior is somebody who is almost as bad as his real father. Later on, when Charley falls in with the homeless, his hard-earned money is stolen. He has to stand on his own two feet, regardless of his tender years.
It’s very much a film of two halves. The first focuses very much on him and the horse he dotes on, perhaps the only consistent aspect of his life. They trek through the desert wastelands which, while barren and as unwelcoming as most of Charley’s world, still look beautiful through Haigh’s eyes. Be warned: there is a scene in this part of the film which, even though you see it coming, will shock and make you gasp.
The second half concentrates on Charley trying to track down the one remaining member of his family, his aunt Margy (Alison Elliott) who had fallen out with his father some years before. The teenager is now homeless, leading a hand to mouth existence and has lost pretty much everything. You wonder how much more he can take. So many stories are crammed into this part of the film that it becomes something of an endurance test for both him and the audience. It’s hard to believe that he can so consistently avoid social services and it’s even harder to believe that his story will end well.
The characters the boy meets along the way – the war veterans, the homeless, the jockey – make the film something of an odyssey and there’s no doubting Haigh’s ability when it comes to getting the best out of his cast. Plummer is impressive as the beating heart of the film and Buscemi, who makes a spectacularly foul mouthed entrance, is at his best as the hard bitten horse trainer.
But Lean On Pete drags in its later stages, piling misery upon misery on the teenager’s shoulders. As a showcase for its acting talent, it gives them plenty to work with but as a whole it loses its way and ends up being a doleful plod through the desert.
Lean On Pete is screened at the London Film Festival on 5th and 6th October and released in cinemas on 16 February 2018.