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The anti-American Dream movie about a boy and his horse

The sweet, weird road trip movie starring Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny & a horse

It’s lonely when your only friend is a horse. That’s true for 15-year-old Charley (Dazed 100er Charlie Plummer) throughout much of Lean on Pete, a pointedly unsentimental coming-of-ager from British director Andrew Haigh. We see Charley and his four-legged friend, an ageing racehorse also named Lean on Pete, as they journey across the dusty terrain of middle America. At no point does the boy ride the creature; instead, they stroll side by side, two outcasts searching for their own place in the world.

Lean on Pete is, then, a road movie with a great deal of walking. Charley, when we meet him, is hungry and desperate, just about surviving in Portland, Oregon, with an unemployed father (Travis Fimmel) and a fridge containing only beer and cereal. A chance meeting with a cranky horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) is what leads Charley to some part-time work at a racetrack. It’s there he befriends a jaded jockey (Chloë Sevigny) who warns him: “Don’t think of them as pets. They’re here to race and nothing else.” Nevertheless, a certain grim truth about the fate of ageing stallions sends Charley off, with the horse, in search of an estranged aunt in Wyoming. Even though he’s got Lean on Pete for company, the conversation proves painfully one-sided.

Haigh did the trip, too, he tells me over coffee in Soho. A month in Portland was spent researching racetracks, hanging out with jockeys, and picking the brains of Willy Vlautin, the author of the 2010 source novel. The director then drove around for three months across Oregon, Utah, Nebraska, and so on. “I wrote the first draft on the road,” he recalls. “It was interesting to see the different communities and environments. It’s amazing how many Americans you meet who haven’t been to that part of America at all. They get confused about what that even is.”

In that sense, Lean on Pete is a geographical anomaly amongst Haigh’s intimate English dramas. His feature debut, Greek Pete, examined the day-to-day routine of a gay escort in Covent Garden. His breakthrough, Weekend, explored a spontaneous Sheffield romance between two young men. Then 45 Years, which earned an Oscar nomination for Charlotte Rampling, icily depicted two 70-somethings whose Norfolk-based marriage lands in a very passive-aggressive crisis.

Yet Haigh attended film school in LA for two years, and was a contributing writer and director for HBO’s Looking, a comedy-drama about a handful of gay men in San Francisco. “I think people have this idea that I just lived in my place in England and never left,” he laughs. “During Looking, I was in America for four years. I’ve got a green card. I spend half my time there. It doesn’t feel like an alien world at all.”

That this incisive, empathetic depiction of America’s underclass comes from a Brit shouldn’t be a surprise. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, too, hit the road, and depicted those on the fringes of society. Further back, Europeans like Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni similarly fell in love with the mystic, poetic qualities of the States’ open landscapes. But is it easier for an outsider like Arnold or Haigh to tackle the American Dream’s harsh reality?

“It does a bit,” Haigh says. “As a filmmaker, your natural instinct is to be curious about other things. For me, this is not any more of a leap than doing 45 Years. I’m also not a 70-year-old woman who lives in the outskirts of Norwich.” Could there be a British version of Lean on Pete? “It wouldn’t take very long. You would get up to Derby. Also, I think it’s easier to fall between the cracks in America, and literally be abandoned by society and everyone around you. Luckily, that’s more difficult in this country.

“Also, the film is driven by this weird hope that Charley has, which I think is something weirdly inherent in the American Dream. It fails everybody, pretty much, the American Dream, but people are driven by it. I don’t think we’re driven by the same sense of hope in Europe. We’re driven by pessimism more.”

“It fails everybody, pretty much, the American Dream, but people are driven by it” - Andrew Haigh

Charley’s aforementioned persistence sees him homeless, penniless, and reliant on the generosity of strangers. For instance, an alcoholic (Steve Zahn) allows him to crash on his van’s floor; elsewhere, he’s caught thieving from a restaurant and then let off without any charges. It’s a callback to his father’s advice: “The best women have all been waitresses at some point.”

That line, I learn, is straight from Vlautin’s novel. Haigh explains, “It did speak to me about the fact that a waitress, especially in those parts of America, sees all versions of humanity coming into their restaurants, good and bad. Look, people have very difficult lives. We can judge them for making the wrong decisions, but if you look harder and understand that these lives can be difficult, hopefully you’re at least a bit more sympathetic to the decisions these people have to make.”

Likewise, Charley is the kind of kid we may pass by regularly in real life, without knowing the extent of his struggle. During a monologue to Lean on Pete, the 15-year-old admits, “I’d rather they never see me again, than see me like this.” So it’s to Haigh’s credit that he was able to cast Plummer, a talented but relatively unknown actor, in the lead role. The dynamic would be ruined if it was, for instance, a megastar from the Divergent franchise playing Charley.

“Yeah, it’s tricky,” the director says. “When you make a film at a certain budget level, you need famous people, or else you can’t make it. But Charley had to be someone that was not known. 15 is a really fragile age period. He’s got to look like a kid, but also old enough to do the things he does. Charlie was clearly the best person for it. We auditioned him. He went on tape. He had something the other people didn’t have. There was a subtlety and sensitivity. In this, Weekend and 45 Years, I like that the men and boys are sensitive and not traditionally masculine characters.”

So instead, the star power came from the likes of Buscemi, Sevigny and Zahn. “Steve and Chloe are character actors. You recognise them, but they fit into worlds.” Was it tempting to do more with, say, Amy Seimetz? “Yeah, because I love Amy Seimetz, and she’s only in the film for five minutes! Usually, when you recognise an actor, they come back. But it’s a story about a kid being abandoned. He hopes these people will look after him, and then they disappear. That’s essential to understanding Charley’s story.”

Since its premiere at Venice Film Festival, Lean on Pete has received rave reviews – including a positive assessment from Horse and Hound magazine regarding the accuracy of the racing culture. Plenty of research was required, Haigh explains, but for film inspirations he turned to Ken Loach: “I watched Kes again. That’s essentially about a boy and a bird, but it’s not about a boy and a bird in any real sense. It uses that relationship to understand something bigger than that.”

With these kinds of references, it’s surprising that Haigh began as an assistant editor for films such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely. “Harmony was fantastic,” Haigh recalls. “We were all in the same room. He’s really cine-literate and passionate about what he does. He used to make me do press-ups during my lunch break. We did prison sit-ups – which is a sit-up with someone holding your legs – and press-ups. Which to me, at the time, was very exciting, that I was doing sit-ups with Harmony Korine.”

“We did prison sit-ups – which is a sit-up with someone holding your legs – and press-ups. Which to me, at the time, was very exciting, that I was doing sit-ups with Harmony Korine” – Andrew Haigh

Korine claims that road movies aren’t possible anymore: GPS means no one can truly get lost in America. Charley, though, doesn’t have a smartphone, and nor does he snap any “neigh a more iconic duo, I’ll wait” selfies with his horse. “But this isn’t a traditional road movie,” says Haigh. “It’s such an American thing to want freedom or to get lost. But this is a kid wanting safety. He just wants someone to put their arm around him and tell him it’s going to be alright.”

It was during the editing of Weekend that Haigh read the short story of 45 Years, and on the Weekend press tour that he encountered Vlautin’s novel. Does he usually think of films that far in advance? “Yeah, because they take so long. You need to love something if it could take six years for it to happen. There are other projects that I’ve sort of started and then fallen out of love with.”

On a related note, Haigh’s Alexander McQueen biopic – in 2016, it was announced that Haigh would direct, Jack O’Connell would star – will not go ahead as planned. “I’m not doing that film anymore,” he says. “It was a complicated thing for me. In the end, I felt like the story wasn’t right for me. It’s not about necessarily losing interest. I only want to tell films that I really feel passionate about telling. I suppose, in reality, I lost my way within that story. But it’s still being made as far as I know, and I still want to see it.”

“Coming-of-age stories are about someone coming to terms with their identity, or understanding their identity. That isn’t what Charlie’s doing in the film. He’s just trying to survive” – Andrew Haigh

Before our conversation ends, Haigh explains that he disagrees with my description of Lean on Pete as a coming-of-age movie. It’s very easy, I concede, to label anything with a young protagonist as part of that genre, but that it will still probably feature in my opening paragraph. Charley suffers through so much, it just feels right.

“In the end,” the director says, “coming-of-age stories are about someone coming to terms with their identity, or understanding their identity. That isn’t what Charlie’s doing in the film. He’s just trying to survive, and trying to get to a place where he can then start to work out who he is and what he wants. If there’s a sequel – which there won’t be – that would be the traditional coming-of-age story.

“People describe this film as that, and it’s fine. But in many ways, 45 Years can be a coming-of-age film as well. Really, coming of age just means you understanding something. I certainly haven’t come of age yet. I’m still waiting! You’re constantly coming of age all the time. Every day, there’s something new you’ve got to try to deal with.”