It’s tempting to imagine that the British director Andrew Haigh is encountering the milieu of his latest film with the same kind of fresh awareness that the audience encounters it as it watches his movie. There’s something about this depiction of the seedier parts of Portland, Oregon, that feels almost shocking in its unexpectedness. Based on a novel by the songwriter Willy Vlautin, whose band the Delines covers much the same kind of rustic waywardness as that put forth in the film, Haigh’s script always seems to be in the process of unfolding truths that don’t come easy. It keeps you off balance, and slightly on edge.
Fifteen-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) seems to be permanently stuck in limbo. Living precariously with a deadbeat dad (Travis Fimmel), who knows he should take better care of his son but can’t seem to summon the wherewithal to even look him in the eye, Charley is very much on his own both economically and spiritually. He hardly goes to school and his father doesn’t make him, instead giving him errands and paying him for them, as if that were the bare minimum expected of a parent. Charley, in fact, has more fellow feeling for his father’s current girlfriend, who feels at least sorry for Charley, though not necessarily in a maternal kind of way.
Eventually, he falls into a job at the local racetrack, where a horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) desperately needs someone to take care of the animals. Charley, who lies his way into the position, is forced to be a quick study, especially since Del doesn’t suffer fools lightly. But in that odd kind of working class way, Del and Charley take to each other despite the lack of real honesty between them, and that feeling transfers to Del’s jockey, Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), and to the unfortunate quarter horse that gives the movie its title. Given his impressionable age, Charley can’t help but identify with this horse, which isn’t good enough for anything more than pickup races. Del and Bonnie are careful to remind him that Pete “isn’t a pet.” He’s a commodity, and only worth something to the world as long as he wins. When he doesn’t, then he’ll be gone. Given that Del dopes and overrides the animal, that end comes sooner than Charley can handle.
It says something about Charley that the violent loss of his father, which should result in Charley’s being sent to an institution, is less traumatic for the boy than the possible loss of Pete through normal economic exigency, and while Charley’s way of handling this possible loss is extreme and foolish, it has the effect of leading the viewer into a world that’s more beautiful, albeit much more dangerous. The second half of the film—basically a road movie on horseback—is weird and discomfiting, but also fascinating. Charley is desperate for a new home, though the audience realizes right away that even if he reaches his destination, it will never be what he envisions. There are few teenage tragedies as heartbreaking as dashed hopes, and Haigh knows exactly what that’s worth.
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).
Lean On Pete home page in Japanese.
photo (c) The Bureau Film Company Limited, Channel Four Television Corporation and the British Film Institute 2017