In 2016, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey was released and, with it, came the beginning of a new conversation about the future direction of the American road movie. Here was a true epic, clocking in at almost three hours, which followed an individual’s journey across the vast, American landscape in search of salvation; if we were going off this description alone, then American Honey would not be much different to any of the other traditional, American road films we’ve seen before. Arnold, however, decided to take a completely different approach on the genre by making her protagonist not a white man looking for himself but a black woman attempting to escape from poverty in the immense, empty American mid-west. In doing so, Arnold highlighted a topic that had not often been covered in such American epics: extreme poverty. To see this issue addressed in such a traditional genre was both refreshing and radical – so how wonderful it is to see it brought up and examined again in Andrew Haigh’s poetic Lean on Pete; a beautiful, devasting piece which takes us on yet another journey through desolate America with a soul in search of solace.
Lean on Pete is led by fifteen-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer), a boy whose life has never known true stability, for so often has he moved in his father’s attempts to find something long-term for the two of them. Charley, much like Sasha Lane’s Star in American Honey, has not only never known much consistency and comfort in his life – he has also never known financial security. His childhood, it is frequently suggested, has seldom seen anything other than searching for just enough money to afford groceries for a week. The first twenty minutes of the film centre almost solely around the hardships that Charley has faced so far in his young life, so when he stumbles upon a summer job with disgruntled racehorse trainer Del (a brilliant Steve Buscemi), it feels, for just a brief moment, that Charley’s future is about to change for the better. This, however, is a Haigh feature – the emotional devastation that our protagonist faces has barely begun. As he begins his work alongside Del, Charley forms a bond with Lean on Pete; an ageing horse in whom Del has little faith, whose lack of luck mirrors Charley’s own misfortune. Before long, and just after Charley appears to have found some sense of permanency at the stables, personal tragedy strikes, and Charley and Pete must begin their journey from West to East across an unforgiving American terrain in search of a new home.
From here on out, Lean on Pete acts as both a buddy movie, a piece on finding companionship in even the harshest of circumstances, and a contemplation on loneliness and the impact of socioeconomic barriers on a teenage boy. For Charley, Pete is a confidant and the moments shared between the two, such as when Charley tells Pete of the shame he feels at not being able to even afford a meal at a diner, are as poignant as they come. Pete’s presence is a balm to Charley’s isolation, to his heartbreak – both boy and his horse have found themselves abandoned and, as a result, their bond is one of incredible strength. As well as being an ode to and an exploration of a friendship born out of shared desertion, Haigh’s film is, primarily, an examination of a life spent in poverty and the effect that this leaves on a young person. Charley’s journey across a beautiful, bare America is not what dreams are made of; it is not a move to the West Coast in pursuit of gold or of fortune – it is a painful, necessary voyage punctuated by bursts of violence and pangs of hunger. For Charley, for a while, this is as good as it gets: the occasional stumbling upon luck, a place to rest his head here and there, the kindness of a waitress in a run-down diner. This is the reality of life for teenagers in poverty, for the forgotten kids faced with the bleak landscape of the mid-west, and Haigh does not once shy away from this fact. Charley’s suffering may feel eternal to the audience but, at least, he finds some catharsis. For a great many others like Charley, there is no hope or release to be found. Haigh’s film may be devastating but it never feels untrue. None of the agony that Charley faces ever appears unrealistic and for that reason, you cannot help but leave Haigh’s film with a sense of overwhelming grief – even if there is some solace for our protagonist, there is often none for those his story takes inspiration from.
At times, Lean on Pete is harrowing and, for all the misery that Charley and Pete are put through, one may struggle to continue watching. This, however, is not a cruel film and its characters are not faced with anguish for the sake of a few shocks. Rather, this is an honest portrayal of a young life consumed by the terrible reality of poverty and loneliness. Lean on Pete may be difficult to sit through, to view without wanting to look away, but I urge you to see it, to look, and, through it, to understand the true extent of economic inequality in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Haigh’s America is one almost completely devoid of dreams and, for that, like Andrea Arnold’s aforementioned masterpiece, it feels far more real than any other American road epic that has come before.
by Hannah Ryan
Hannah lives in Cardiff and is into female protagonists, visually pleasing movies and Star Wars. Her favourite films include Pan’s Labyrinth, Casino Royale and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. She generally prefers dogs to people and you can find her talking endlessly about films at @_hannahryan on Twitter.