The Quarter Horse is a sprinter, so named because it only competes in quarter-mile, blink-or-you’ll-miss-it races; in more ways than one, it’s not built for the long haul. Andrew Haigh‘s beautiful new film Lean on Pete refers to a five-year-old Quarter Horse that’s only a few races away from the glue factory, having been ridden into the ground by a trainer who’s looking for quick-and-dirty cash grabs at dumpy regional tracks and poorly regulated fairs. His horses are given performance-enhancing “vitamins” before running, and if that’s not enough, his jockeys shock them with buzzers for extra motivation. When the gas and stable fees start to exceed their winnings, they’re sold off to Mexico and essentially stripped for parts, like an old car dropped at the junkyard.
Anyone who’s seen The Black Stallion, the gold standard of boy-and-his-horse movies, can anticipate the metaphor for abandonment that develops between Pete and Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), the 15-year-old ragamuffin who will grow deeply attached to him. Charley and his beer-swilling, womanizing dad (Travis Fimmel) have been kicking around the Pacific Northwest for a while, living hand-to-mouth on menial work, and they rarely have enough money for the essentials. (In one typically sharp detail, Charley stores a box of Cap’n Crunch in their empty fridge to keep the cockroaches from getting into it.) When Charley wanders over to Portland Downs and lands a summer job doing muck-work for Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), a grizzled trainer, he’s told repeatedly not to treat the horses like pets, but the kid can’t help it. Where do his sympathies lie: With a second affable-but-negligent father or with the lonely, unwanted, innocent animal squealing in the paddock?
Known for intimate, mostly interior British dramas like Weekend and 45 Years, Haigh makes a surprising appearance in Oregon and the Mountain states, territory that even American filmmakers rarely bother to visit. Working from Willy Vlautin’s novel, Haigh doesn’t yank at the heartstrings like a jockey on loose reins, but offers Charley’s story as a stateside 400 Blows, an affecting yet unsentimental treatment of the hidden realities of childhood poverty and desperation. He excels at the particulars of this story — viewers will walk away knowing how to operate their own shady horse-training racket — but he has an eye for the country at large, both in its overwhelming vastness and in underclass character types who don’t typically get much screen time.
When Charley asks Del for some work, he needs the extra cash for grocery money, but mostly he’s enchanted by the horse-racing scene — the thrilling quarter-mile sprints, the gentle majesty of the animals, the prospect of road-tripping across the plains and sleeping under the stars. For his part, Del sizes the kid up shrewdly: He’ll bust his hump for very little money, and spare him from doing the shit-shoveling gruntwork himself. Charley finds an ally of sorts in Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Del’s longtime friend and jockey, and the three make an effective team, zipping through events just long enough to collect their winnings and stay ahead of the regulators. When a terrible incident leaves Charley’s father incapacitated, however, the boy considers striking out to find his Aunt Margy, who he hasn’t seen since she and his dad became estranged. Then, when his beloved Pete starts to wear out his usefulness to Del, Charley takes dramatic action on behalf of both of them.
At a certain point, Lean on Pete shifts from a story of day-to-day struggle to a story of survival, with Charley doing everything he can to make the next meal and make the next stop on the journey east to Aunt Margy. The film resembles Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, about the terrible choices facing a young woman stuck in an Oregon town without resources. But if anything, Charley is more vulnerable, because he’s younger and striking out into the great unknown. His encounters have the spontaneity of a road movie, like a desert pit stop with war-vet siblings or a harrowing couple of days among homeless addicts in Denver, and they underscore just how dangerous his seat-of-the-pants adventure turns out to be. Lean on Pete may champion the resiliency of children, but what makes it heartbreaking is how little time Charley has to process the trauma he endures. He has to swallow his fear and grief, and keep moving forward.
As with other Haigh productions, the performances are all extraordinary, with Buscemi adding to his gallery of lovably dyspeptic losers, Sevigny bringing earthiness and wit to a veteran jockey who knows how the game works, and Steve Zahn making a brief but potent impression as a street drunk who’s helpless to his addiction. But it’s Plummer who carries the film as Charley, in a difficult role that requires him to bottle up emotions that read on his face, but he can’t afford to express. In his world, a Quarter Horse race that’s meaningless to all but the fairgoers and degenerates betting on it becomes a life-or-death proposition, and Haigh lets Plummer’s eyes handle the call. Nobody else sees him or knows the stakes, but we do.