In case you were wondering, Lean on Pete is the name of a horse. Not a special one, just your average American quarter horse — a doomed beast stuck racing for small-stakes bets at second-tier tracks in and around Portland, Oregon. Based on Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, “Lean on Pete” is the story of said horse and of the boy who saves him from the glue factory, or from being sent down to Mexico to be slaughtered. And, depending on how corny you want to get, how the kid saves himself in the process.
What “Lean on Pete” is not is a children’s movie, or a crowd-pleaser, or an uplifting coming-of-age story. Directed by Andrew Haigh, who previously told the relatively artful grown-up modern romances “Weekend” and “45 Years,” it’s a serious-minded, unvarnished glimpse into how it feels to be 15 and completely alone in the world. But instead of playing that situation for sympathy, Haigh takes the Bressonian high road, adopting an austere, arm’s-length style that keeps the audience at an uncomfortable distance from the character.
The film’s salvation comes in the casting of newcomer Charlie Plummer as teenage Charley Thompson — tall, still awkwardly adjusting to his new adolescent dimensions, with angular facial features and a brow that’s seen too much worrying for his 15 years. Charley’s mom walked out when he was young, and his dad is a beer-bellied slob (played by one-time Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel, here looking more like the redneck version of his rugged “Vikings” character), not a bad guy, but no role model either, getting drunk after work and using what remains of his homecoming-king charm to bring home local women (it’s a part better suited to Steve Zahn, who appears later, miscast as an abusive, borderline-homeless man).
Charley has just moved to Portland when we meet him, and while jogging around the neighborhood, he’s captivated by the racetrack a few blocks from his new home. He’s never ridden a horse in his life, but curiosity draws him to the Portland Downs, where a surly and somewhat shady trainer named Del (introduced out of focus, but recognizable as Steve Buscemi by his nasal voice alone) offers him spending money to help manage his half dozen horses, of which Lean on Pete is one.
Charley accompanies Del to an out-of-town race, teaching him the ropes — though he can only go so far. “You don’t have any manners, do you?” Del asks Charley after watching the kid eat, all but inhaling his food. Somehow that moment says everything we need to know about his negligent upbringing, though Haigh weaves in other clues: Charley’s home is a sty, messier than the stables where the horses sleep, and the only fatherly advice his dad has to offer is, “All the best women have been waitresses at one point,” even if the movie bears out that observation.
Charley hits it off with Del’s battle-scarred sometime-jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), who tells him she once worked at Red Lobster. Bonnie’s kindness toward the kid is heartbreaking. In fact, the film’s most powerful moments occur when other characters show empathy toward the boy — most notably in a scene where he is caught trying to dine-and-dash, and his fate is decided by a waitress. Still, the only mother figure Charley wants is his estranged Aunt Martha (Rachael Perrell Fosket). Eventually, for reasons better left to audiences to discover, the kid will set out to find her on his own.
For an English director, Haigh has an impressive, instinctive feel for this lower-income American milieu, including well-observed details, such as the neighbor who hangs a patriotic flag from her porch, but fails to come when an emergency breaks out next door. And yet, childhood itself seems like a foreign country to him. Whether stealing Lean on Pete from his proper owners or attempting to dine-and-dash from a restaurant when he has no food, Charley’s actions are convincingly those of a 15-year-old boy — but they are lifted directly from Vlautin’s novel, with little indication that Haigh understands the psychology behind those impulses.
It’s as if Haigh has set out to synthesize two of Robert Bresson’s best-known classics, “Au Hasard Balthazar” (about the bond between a farm girl and her donkey) and “Mouchette” (in which a child from an unhappy home finds trouble when she runs away), attempting to channel a similarly understated tone. In so doing, he invites audiences to fill in those emotions his character never articulates outright — as in the scene that follows a violent outburst, as Charley stands in front of a bathroom mirror, quivering as he reacts to something new and disturbing in his own reflection. We can conclude that he feels something during this moment, but precisely what is anybody’s guess.
And then there’s the matter of Charley’s horse. Spoiler alert: Lean on Pete does not make it until the end of the movie. In fact, he dies a ghastly death — one that no person who goes to see a movie named after a horse will want to witness. To make matters worse, the moment is handled in an alarmingly detached way (the horse’s death puts other humans in danger, but Haigh ignores the others who might have been killed altogether).
Charley makes some very bad decisions over the course of the film, but is presumably redeemed by what a sensitive young man he is — except that when it counts most, he shows zero interest in his own species. While tragic, it’s a damningly false moment, delivered at a critical juncture, that belies the notion that Haigh’s distancing style is somehow humanist at its core. Whose heart doesn’t go out to an orphan outlaw with only a horse to call his friend? That much is easy. But Haigh’s approach is entirely counterintuitive, asking us to identify with the young man, even as the style throws obstacles in the way of such a connection. It’s frustrating to watch, but designed in such a way that the boy’s loneliness will haunt long afterward.