Lean on Pete isn’t the YA animal movie it appears to be

Director Andrew Haigh on approaching a coming-of-age story through the world of low-level horse racing.

Charley (Charlie Plummer) has just moved to Portland for his father’s (Travis Fimmel) job. Irresponsible and overworked, Charley’s father more or less leaves him alone all day and all night, which is how Charley discovers that there’s a horse racing track a few blocks away from their new house.

Charley takes to hanging around the track, eventually starting to do odd jobs for a curmudgeonly horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) and developing a soft spot for Lean on Pete, an ageing racehorse whose usefulness to his owner is rapidly dwindling. When tragedy strikes, leaving Charley rootless, he decides to free Lean on Pete from inevitable “retirement” and escape into the American heartland.

“It’s a very distinct world,” says director Andrew Haigh. “That world of low-level racing is a really tough world. They’re people who are making no money — jockeys are making like 60 to 70 bucks a race and it’s hard on their bodies, it’s hard on the horses. People are working the horses more than they should because they have to go home and put food on the table.

“From the comfort of your home, you can go, like, ‘Oh, why would you treat a horse so badly?’ but that’s their livelihood. It is not a pet! We say it enough times in the film, but it really isn’t a pet! It was always, for me, about having sympathy for all the people within the film, even if our gut instinct is that they’re not a great person. You’ve gotta have some sympathy for people who are existing in difficult situations.”

Though the synopsis may recall The Black Stallion or any number of young-adult-oriented animal films from the ’70s and ’80s, Lean on Pete (which is adapted from a novel by Willy Vlautin) is considerably more brutal and downbeat.

“You expect a certain thing from the book as well,” says Haigh. “And then you’re immediately like, ‘Oh, shit, that is NOT what this is.’ In the end it’s not about the horse, it’s about this kid. (…) Part of me kinda likes this perverse feeling of making people feel like they’re going to see one thing and showing them something different. It does speak to the nature of the story, though. This is a good fucking kid who people have let down. The country has let him down! There’s no one there to protect him and that is bleak. It’s not an easy situation to be in.”

In discussing some (spoiler-ific) elements of Lean on Pete, Haigh says he doesn’t see himself as a particularly optimistic person. I bring up that I find that surprising, especially considering the fact that master of bleakness Michael Haneke told me he considered himself optimistic.

“If you have nothing to believe in and hope for, what is there?” says Haigh. “There’s absolutely nothing! But clearly that’s not how the world works, because we don’t all kill ourselves. We try and find some meaning and some hope and some way to deal with the suffering. For me, in the end, that’s the bigger thing. Life is very difficult for everybody, so how do you try to deal with that? That’s pretty much the base level (laughs) — suffering.”

Haigh is British, and like many European directors before him, he has opted to make his first American film as not simply a story set in America — it is a real slice of Americana.

“I’d spent a decent amount of time in America,” he says. “I’d travelled for three or four months before I even wrote the script and went on the journey that Charley went on. I camped out and stayed in motels, I spent a lot of time in Portland meeting jockeys and trainers and did all of that. In the end, it was all very helpful, but I was trying to find the details of the world, the reality of the world in the script. When I made the film, I wanted to make sure that all the people in the background are the people who live in the area, who really work in the racetrack, who really would go to the homeless shelter…

“It’s very important to me that it feels realistic, but I also do have a different perspective on that world because I’m not from there,” he continues. “Instead of pretending that that isn’t the case, you embrace it a little bit. I really love Phantom Thread, and I feel it says more about Britishness than so many British films have ever been able to capture — and he’s an American! He doesn’t live in England, he doesn’t ‘understand,’ but he’s captured it. I’m not entirely sure why that is. I used to work for Merchant-Ivory a long time ago — James Ivory is American and Ismail Merchant is Indian, yet they made very quintessentially British movies. So I sometimes think that, in an outsider perspective, the pressure is taken off.” ■

Lean on Pete opens in theatres on Friday, April 20