Lean on Pete: Beating a dead horse
by Kaleem Aftab
- VENICE 2017: British director Andrew Haigh's latest is an adaptation of a novel by singer and author Willy Vlautin and something of a departure from his previous work
British director Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete [+see also:
film profile], screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival, is an adaptation of a novel by singer and author Willy Vlautin. The coming-of-age tale has more in common tonally with Francis Ford Coppola’s teen movies The Outsiders and Rumble Fish than with Haigh’s previous films, which have been intricate British relationship dramas. He showed a penchant for uncovering the difficulties that come with romantic entanglements in the excellent gay romantic drama Weekend [+see also:
film profile] (2011) and the Berlin Film Festival favourite 45 Years [+see also:
Q&A: Andrew Haigh
film profile] (2015), for which Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay won Silver Bears for their performances playing a couple whose marriage encounters an unexpected crisis.
His work in America has hitherto been grander in scope. For TV, Haigh has been working stateside for some time, shooting episodes of Looking, the San Francisco-set comedy series about the friendship between three gay men. But what’s clear from the off is that Lean on Pete is something of a departure for Haigh, which can partly be attributed to the fact that his 15-year-old protagonist, Charley, has little in the way of romantic interests. Played by Charlie Plummer, Charley is a teenager who could be a descendant of Stand by Me star River Phoenix, both in terms of his dreamy good looks and also his search for belonging, born from his desire to have a place that feels like home. Instead, he feels like a drifter, arriving in Portland, Oregon, with his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), the next stop on a seemingly never-ending whistle-stop tour.
The film moves from a trot to a canter when the doe-eyed Charley sees a surrogate father in Steve Buscemi’s Del Montgomery. Buscemi is an actor who, with the raising of an eyebrow, can make a Samaritan seem sketchy, and pretty soon it’s apparent that his Montgomery is a man who lives drink to drink. There is something adorable in how Charley is blissfully unaware of how tragic a figure Montgomery is, a horse owner who has resorted to running his bedraggled mares and geldings at lowly, two-bit races. Yet Charley is ecstatic. He is given the responsibility of looking after the horses, and has a particular attachment to one of them, the eponymous Lean on Pete.
It’s a great name for the Quarter Horse, as Charley sees Lean on Pete as a trusty friend, whereas for Montgomery the horse is only as good as the money it yields. Operating somewhere in the middle is Chloë Sevigny’s Bonnie, who completes this unusual ‘family’, playing a part-time jockey who cuts a stylish figure in jodhpurs whilst dishing out sage advice. As they travel the circuit of racetracks, it feels like a great novel by Charles Bukowski or John Fante, uncovering the underbelly of America, highlighting the lengths people go to just to get by.
It’s the characters and not the environment that are most interesting, so it’s a shame when this nascent family falls apart. Haigh loses the reins somewhat as the film drifts away from the tracks and becomes obsessed, as so many European filmmakers are when working in the USA, by the vast, great American vista. These beautiful images and shots feel almost derivative, especially when compared to the raw eye of fellow Brit Andrea Arnold’s stateside odyssey American Honey [+see also:
Q&A: Andrea Arnold
film profile]. Alas, Lean on Pete falls at the final fence into a saccharine puddle, having raced on such good footing.
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