“In all honesty if I heard about a film about a boy and his horse I wouldn’t want to go see that because I would think it was a family movie,” says English director Andrew Haigh. We are talking about his newest film Lean on Pete, which is, ironically, a film about a boy and his horse.
Based on the book by Willy Vlautin, it sounds like family fare but it is anything but. The cast should be the first clue. Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn, all edgy 90s indie virtuosos, are the above-the-title stars, hinting that this isn’t going to be another National Velvet retread.
“The book is sad at times and tragic at times so the movie felt like a faithful adaptation of that. Oddly, I think that’s why I liked it because it was seemingly playing with more traditional ideas but telling the real life version of that. There could be a family movie about a boy on the road with a horse but it not going to be real. It was only after I finished the film that I realised, ‘This is going to be quite a challenge.’”
Charlie Plummer, last seen as John Paul Getty III in All the Money in the World, plays Charley Thompson a fifteen-year-old looking for permanence in his hardscrabble life. To pass the time he gets a job tending to an aging Quarter Horse named Lean On Pete. When the horse’s owner, a crusty old horse trader played by Buscemi, decides to get rid of Pete, to “send him to Mexico”—i.e.: the glue factory— Charley makes off with the horse, embarking on a road trip in search of a better life for both of them.
“It isn’t about the horse,” says Haigh. “It is about Charley’s desperate need for some stability, some security, someone to care for him, someone to care about him. That’s what’s driving him.”
As Charley the eighteen-year-old Plummer is magnetic, quietly creating the character of a desperate young man who does bad things for mostly the right reasons.
“It is not easy trying to cast someone about that age. Especially someone who has to both physically feel right, that they are still a kid but very nearly an adult. I knew I wanted him, in a frame, to look like a kid and then suddenly go older, then younger.
“There a lot of good boys that we had seen but Charley had something different. He approaches scenes in a different way. He doesn’t go the easy emotional way. He finds something a more challenging which sometimes keeps you at even more of a distance but then sometimes pulls you in with that amazing face he has.”
Haigh, who next project is The North Water, a sprawling TV movie about a disgraced ex-army surgeon now working as ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition, hopes people respond to Lean on Pete’s messages of kindness and compassion.
“If people leave the cinema and they feel for that kid and think about him that is all I can really hope for,” he says. “I hope it speaks to the importance of the need to help people who are suffering. I don’t know if people will take that away or not but it is certainly in the DNA of the film.”