– By Ben Escobar –
It’s critical to understand before seeing Lean on Pete, that it isn’t your average horse film. Sure, it’s got the jockeys and hill country horse races, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s even more critical to understand that if you haven’t seen a film from Andrew Haigh prior to Lean on Pete, you are in for a treat. Rather than being just another gimmick sob-story written for the screen as some animal movies are, Andrew Haigh’s latest film is a masterful defiance of the stereotype, even if it feels like it’s been tempted to cater to it. That being said, Lean on Pete is definitely not for everyone—it’s a great naptime movie for some—but it is also a notable title amongst the works of Andrew Haigh, even if it may not be his best.
It’s impossible to discuss an Andrew Haigh film without first discussing the signature cinematography that breathes life into his humanist style. Every shot, both long and short, is subtly gripping and almost disturbingly immersive. Haigh sets up the camera in the corner of the room, only settling with a single master shot that is framed to make the audience feel as though we are eavesdropping every moment and conversation that the characters have. Contrary to the typical style of other indie films that sticks close to the face of the main character as a means of gaining the audience’s allegiances, Haigh’s style gives room for the characters to breath, but in turn allows us to pull up a chair in every scene and listen in on the story unfolding before us.
In Lean on Pete however, there are more exterior shots than compared to Haigh’s past films, such as Weekend or 45 Years. Perhaps due to the nature of the “runaway” style that Lean on Pete is founded on, the main character, Charlie, is framed at a distance in every shot, magnifying his surroundings and that sensation of being “lost.” The horse, “Lean on Pete,” or simply, “Pete,” is often left in the dust following Charlie’s running away. The film undoubtedly feels centered on Charlie, but I found the inclusion of Pete to often feel forced—almost as though if the film was obligated to cater to that “boy and his horse” stereotype.
Without giving too much away, it was easy to tell that Andrew Haigh is well aware of the stereotypes that come alongside these animal films—something that looks cute, engages in a heartwarming bond with the main character, saves and is saved by the main character on various occasions, dies by the end, and leaves the main character in mourning over the inevitable loss of the animal. Now, while I’m not going to say which elements of this formula are used, I can say that the conclusion of the film felt awkwardly unfinished—as though if the story wasn’t meant to focus on a horse and his boy, but rather, a boy and the ones that he finds himself dependent on. Every character feels as though if they are stuck in one place with no foreseeable future of them moving forward or going anywhere else in their life—except for Charlie. Yet, it’s clear that while Charlie traverses through the various environments meeting various people, there is a constant need for him to find someone to “lean on.” And yes, that’s an extremely intentional pun.
This alone, separates Charlie from everyone else that he comes across in the story—including Pete. And this is where the film stumbles. Aside from its slow pacing and artistic sensation of constant escape, there is a tremendous opportunity, following several trials and errors of finding constant dependency in the midst of constant escape, for Charlie to find that dependency within himself. It’s so obvious, yet it never happens—or maybe it does? In the final shot of the film, following the conclusion of Charlie’s 2 hour journey to find his Aunt in hopes of living with her and starting a new life with her, there is a sequence that reciprocates the timeless ending of The 400 Blows. To compare the two, both contain young boys that are on a constant run from something in hopes of finding something new. In the ending of The 400 Blows, the boy finally reaches that freedom that he’s been running toward for so long, but upon seeing it, finds that he is still lost and has nowhere left to go. So, we are left hoping that the final moment of the film serves as the ultimate awakening that the boy has been desperate for the entire film. The same scenario applies for Lean on Pete. We see Charlie in the middle of a suburban neighborhood street, going out for a run, but then stopping in the middle of the street, becoming suddenly aware of his surroundings. Yes, this is what he has been seeking for so long, but was it the right thing to search for?
This is the question that Lean on Pete leaves us with. It is naturally unsatisfying, but also hopeful to imagine that perhaps Charlie realized that his true dependency should from come from within himself—not a dead-beat father, not a lost mother, a new-found aunt, and not even a horse. There’s evidence to say that he hasn’t realized that he should depend on himself, but I’d like to trust that Andrew Haigh knows what he was trying to start—it just didn’t deserve to be overshadowed by a horse.
Regardless, there’s nothing wrong with Pete. It’s not hard to make an audience fall in love with an animal, but it’s interesting to note that Haigh doesn’t waste any time trying to force the audience to care directly about Pete for any reason other than Charlie’s dependency on him. There’s no over-dramatized horse races, no cute moments with Pete alone, and not even anything really special about Pete. He’s just a horse, but he’s more than that to Charlie, and because we are emotionally invested in Charlie, we can (mostly) agree with him.
But then, what’s the point of selling Pete to be something more than he actually was? I can understand marketing the film as a “boy and his horse” film for viewer’s sake, but to continue (in any measure) with that stereotype in the actual film, felt out of place. But regardless, I’d like to think there’s more left to unpack with this one.
+ Beautiful, Immersive Cinematography
+ Blissful Runaway Aesthetic
– Story Feels Unfinished
– Slow Pacing, Not for Everybody
– Not Andrew Haigh’s Best
About the Author
Ben Escobar is a screenwriting and production student at JPCatholic (Class of 2018) who boasts an immense love for all things relating to the art of cinema. His favorite director is Richard Linklater and his favorite movie is Swiss Army Man.
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