British director Andrew Haigh gallops onto the Venice Lido with Lean on Pete, an equine coming-of-ager about a young boy and his horse. An adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel, Haigh shifts from his arthouse roots of Weekend and 45 Years to full-blown Americana.
Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is a 15-year-old boy living in Portland, Oregon with his dad on the borderline of poverty. He keeps the cereal in the fridge because the roaches got in a box he left out, and while he’s not exactly neglected his dad (a twinkling-eyed turn from Travis Fimmel) seems keener to have him as a young pal to impress with his sexual conquests than as a son to care for. Charley goes running and one of his runs takes him into a local race track where he meets horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi, at his acerbic best). Del is on his way down and views his reduced stable of horses as money-making opportunities to be used up and then sold in Mexico.
Charley begins to work for Del, but while the money is welcome, it’s his immediate connection to the horse and in particular a racehorse called ‘Lean on Pete’ which has him returning day after day. He’s warned by jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) that “horses aren’t pets”, but even as Charley witnesses Del’s shadier deals in getting the most out of his beasts, he persists in forging a rapport with his favourite nag. Things take a dramatic turn when the husband of one of his father’s flings turns up at the house and delivers pops a beating. Isolated and traumatised, Charley learns that Lean on Pete is to be sold after coming last in a race and takes off with the horse and Del’s truck.
Sadly, the intriguing set up – along with Del and Bonnie – is left behind for a too nakedly state-of-America musing, with everyone Charley happens across having some social ill to portray – whether it’s the Iraq war veterans holed up in a farm in the desert or Steve Zahn’s homeless mentor who tries to tutor Charley. Stealing a horse and driving across the country with no money is a dumb idea, even for a teenager, and Charley will go on to make several more. He’s ably assisted by a variety of law enforcement officers and doctors who keep telling him to “Wait right there” – just before he hightails it into the night once more. Yet the film should also be applauded for bringing the consequences of those decisions to a logical conclusion as regards the horse in a scene that is at once gruesome and strangely exasperating.
Somewhat frustratingly, Charley remains an enigma. With his lilting intonation and his vaguely dreamy look, it’s hard to tell sometimes if he’s gormless or traumatised – or a bit of both. On a number of occasions he has a meaningful gaze into a mirror, but the audience isn’t privy to his interiority. He babbles away happily enough to his horse, but the horse is as blithely indifferent as we are. Rather than a genuine relationship between the animal and the boy, it feels like Charley is projecting his needs onto the animal, who could just as easily be stuffed. Lean on Pete trots on in a meandering search for an estranged Aunt Martha (Rachael Perrell Fosket), but by then the initial intrigue has been left behind on the trails.