Lean on Pete: The Searchers, by David Bax
It’s almost an admission of our collective failure to remember what it was like to be children that we find such relevance and currency in stories of kids and their pets. Our own, too little examined maturation makes boys and girls difficult to understand while their own lack of experience makes it difficult for them to be understood. So there’s a purity to be found in the uncomplicated, unconditional bond between kids and their dogs (Old Yeller, a billion other examples), their cheetah (Carroll Ballard’s underappreciated gem, Duma) or, in the case of Andrew Haigh’s achingly beautiful new film Lean on Pete, their horse.
Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World), in a performance that seems far too subtle and sophisticated to come from someone so young, is our protagonist, Charley. He’s somewhere between fifteen and eighteen years old (as a survival method, he gives his age differently depending on the situation) and he is essentially self-sufficient. Sure, he lives with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), but, while Ray is a dad who seems to care about his son a great deal, he is completely unfit as a protector or provider. When Ray’s latest shenanigans get him beaten savagely by a jealous husband and left unable to work, Charley is even more on his own. So he takes a job working for a man named Del (Steve Buscemi), who owns racehorses that run at just the sort of bottom rung, last stop before the glue factory track that happens to be located a quick jog from Charley’s neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Charley takes to the hair brushing and shit shoveling quickly and has soon forged a bond with Lean on Pete, Del’s most underperforming horse. When Pete loses one race too many and is set to be sold, Charley takes the reins and sets off with his pal for Laramie, Wyoming, the last known residence of his aunt, the only relative he knows who might have a place for him (not to mention an intact spleen).
Haigh’s films are often deceptively simple-looking. On the surface, they appear to bear the same desaturated, slightly grainy look of, say, Miguel Arteta’s early work. On closer examination, though, Haigh’s images are far more painterly than they at first seem. Lean on Pete’s early, Portland-set scenes in particular are like watercolors, with the sodium arc glow of the racetrack lights at night dissipating into the wet, black sky.
As Charley makes his way East, Lean on Pete ironically begins to take on more of the visual qualities of a Western, all twilight vistas of dusk and sunbeams. As a whole, the movie might just qualify for admittance into the genre. At just over two hours, it’s probably not quite long enough to be considered an epic but it’s definitely one of those Searchers-style journeys in which we long just as much as the characters do to reach the destination but it seems to just keep slipping further away.
Another thing Lean on Pete has in common with those mythic American films is a surfeit of heavy symbolism. What Pete, enchanting and stubborn, represents will be clear by the end. But the horse isn’t all Charley brings with him on his trek. His baseball cap, the low brim of which becomes an emblem of Charley’s own tendency toward shrinking violet self-preservation, is ever-present. Meanwhile, Ray’s leather belt, taken from the hospital room, is a complicated reminder of Charley’s father. Flashy and admired by women, the belt’s many etchings, a new one earned every time Ray moved, also tell the story of Charley’s rootless childhood.
Ray, it seems, never understood Charley or what he needed as a child. Pete, on the other hand, seems to perceive everything just right, in his patient eyes and in his muscular body. Lean on Pete is not just Charley’s story. It’s the story of two boys, each so full of promise and yet so short on options.