2018 Film Essays

Wading Through the Western Expanse: The Myth-Busting Power of Andrew Haigh’s ‘Lean on Pete’

No one made Lean on Pete for me.

Andrew Haigh’s Western, like the novel it’s based on, isn’t really for anyone. It’s a simple movie that unfolds slowly and says what it has to say without fanfare or sentiment.

That’s a little surprising, given the subject matter — not because boy-and-his-horse stories are notorious for their astute identity politics, but because they’re usually slathered with the shiny-sad ache of movies like The Black Stallion. The kid-and-animal formula is positioned as a remedy to the loneliness and languor that permeates American Westerns. They’re stories bound by a tight emotional rulebook: the frontier gets gloomy for drifters and renegades, but at least they’ve got a four-legged friend to see them through.

Lean on Pete skims that rulebook and then politely smashes it to smithereens. It’s an unsparing work that takes some of our most fundamental anxieties — What would I do without my parents? What if nobody understands me? — and filters them through sad-heroic Western tropes to find the hard emotional truths buried inside. In keeping with Haigh’s output like Weekend and 45 Years, Lean on Pete feels startling because it tells a familiar story but denies viewers the mileposts of tragedy and triumph.

It’s also deeply personal to me in ways I’m still unwinding.

The story is nothing special: 16-year-old Charlie (Christopher Plummer) lives with his well-meaning, deadbeat dad in North Portland. In one of the film’s many authentic strokes, Charlie doesn’t have much in the way of a fully-formed identity. He knows he likes horses, and that’s enough to put him on colliding paths with Del (Steve Buscemi), a gruff trainer who introduces him to aging racehorse Lean on Pete. Tragedy strikes, and Haigh delivers a series of vignettes that range from quietly-touching to devastating as Charlie and Pete make their way from Oregon to Wyoming in search of the boy’s estranged aunt.

I’ve never worked stables as a morning chore, let alone as a survival tactic. My parents have had steady jobs for my entire life, and all the traveling I’ve ever done has been for pleasure. All of this gives me immediate pause whenever I try to establish a thread from me to Lean on Pete. Charlie’s story is not my story.

But I did grow up in Oregon. Not the incense-stained Portlandia part or the gee-whiz Goonies coastal enclaves — the lower-middle-class, timber-centric, booze-soaked sector. It wasn’t until I saw Lean on Pete that I realized how infrequently I’d encountered that world onscreen.

One moment in particular has haunted me since my first viewing. Charlie, Del and a jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny, in a typically standout supporting role) drive down to Oregon’s St. Paul Rodeo to chase some high-paying gigs. Up to this point, about 45 minutes in, I’d assumed Lean on Pete was a period piece. Charlie’s bedroom walls are wood-paneled and he never uses the internet. When he needs to place a call home from the road, he scrounges for change and feeds it into tavern payphones. He and his equestrian cohorts dress in the sort of hick-neutral garb that places them in space more than time — the costumes indicate that it’s… any time after 1970.

Then Haigh plants a silent landmine. In the middle of the rodeo’s main drag, Charlie and Bonnie talk while families buzz behind them. Then, in the lower corner of the frame, a Clinton/Kaine sign works its way into view.

The reveal is a gut-punch in its own right, indicative of the small ways Haigh forces viewers to check their assumptions about lives lived in poverty. For me, though, it stirred up an even-deeper response. The film’s details started to bleed into my own history: I remembered the wood paneling in the mobile home I lived in while my parents finished building the log cabin where I would live out my adolescence. I thought about the fact that I had dial-up internet until 2011, and how that must sound to the people I went to school with in Boston. I wondered if they thought I sounded frozen in time.

And then, as the film unfurled and Haigh ushered in images of Charlie’s trek beneath the yawning skies of Washington and Idaho, I thought about the Wild West mythology that pierces both sides of my family — how my mom was born and raised in rural Montana, which never fully resonated with me until her father gifted me a smoke-soaked “Indian jacket” that he wore to the local watering hole in the 1970s; how my dad comes from a line of straight-up Utah Mormons, those greatest of self-styled American martyrs, and his grandfather made a living by stomping spur-clad through patches of earth that he was guaranteed by little more than intergenerational insistence. I thought about what I inherited from those stories, how their exaggerations and omissions helped shape who I think I am and the sorts of things I think I might deserve.

And then the mythology started to melt away. I thought about the number of times I made light of my tiny high school’s abysmal graduation rate (in 2015, Oregon’s graduation numbers ranked in the bottom five). I thought about my determination to leave; how it seemed to transcend normal hometown disillusionment. I thought that, while Charlie’s story is not my story, I brushed shoulders with Charlies every day, and then I told myself I was surrounded by too many Charlies, that I’d like to go to The City now, thank you very much, and moved east for college without a second thought.

I realized that I’d never given proper clear-eyed weight to my roots because I’d bought into so many lies about them. When discussing the specifics of my childhood, I’d point to the boutique-ridden Pacific Northwest of Portlandia because I didn’t think that the grittier realities of my circumstances were acceptable dressings for the story of my life. Watching Lean on Pete and seeing tiny details plucked from my history felt like fitting the final piece into a puzzle I thought I’d finished years ago.

On the list of people who need to see themselves on-screen, I’m somewhere near the bottom. I’m a white, cis, gay man with a college education and a middle-class background; I don’t have to look far to see any of those identity markers played out on celluloid. But Haigh’s movie reminded me how granular identity really is, and how restrictive our ideas of diversity can sometimes be.

Lean on Pete isn’t for me. It isn’t about me. But I needed it to wade through all the stories I’d ever heard that were supposed to be for me and about me. It’s a testament to the power of a well-told narrative, unclouded by fable — the kind of stuff you find yourself leaning on, whether you mean to or not.

Conner Reed (@NBCsSMASH) is a Boston-based culture writer, audio producer and self-appointed Laura Dern scholar. 

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