Hero's selfishness damages emotional bond of Lean on Pete

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The story of a boy and a horse — as told in the literature of C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy or as filmed in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse — needs a strong emotional foundation as its basis.

For an audience to care about the bond between a human and an animal, the latter light on expressive abilities, there needs to be something strong ensuring that the bond is felt. Lean on Pete, directed by Andrew Haigh, tries to do so, but fails, for the most part.

The film’s protagonist, Charley Thompson, lives with his dad Ray in Portland, Oregon. While Ray busies himself with a married secretary, Charley goes off and discovers a local racetrack where he finds employment and an aging racehorse named Lean On Pete.

Under the tutelage of Pete’s owner, Del, Charley learns to care for and maintain racehorses. When Ray’s relationship leads to unintended consequences, Charley chooses to go off in search of his estranged aunt, taking — but never riding — Pete with him as a companion.

As can be gleaned from the sunset images used for the film’s marketing, Lean on Pete is visually impressive. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films every shot with beauty and a strong sense of color. The film cycles through its journey over day and night, and at every hour throughout. Jønck’s work is an absolute pleasure to behold, and the best element of the movie.

The use of perspective in cinematography helps to point to the main issue of the film: it is all about Charley. The camera is purposely aimed to situate Charley as the focus of attention. Recent similar examples that come to mind are The Florida Project in its storytelling from the height of its protagonist children and mother!, where the shot points almost constantly at Jennifer Lawrence.

Similarly, Lean on Pete takes a horse race and shows the horses in the background while Charley watches them in the foreground, the camera turning around him.

In Lean on Pete, almost everything is about Charley, and the character’s selfishness is a key detractor from any emotional structure the film attempts to build.

The protagonist takes Pete with him in his attempt to find his aunt and the consequences are never shown; there is no cutaway to Del. It would not be fair to call him completely selfish, as Charley does save Pete from danger, but his motives seem purely for his own purposes. Charley has no plan of what to do with Pete; he just pulls the horse around and talks to him about his aunt.

Toward humans, Charley acts with reckless abandon, taking for himself moment after moment, to the detriment of those around him.

There is no need for the selfishness and at no point is Charley alone. He is offered help from every angle, and only in one instance is he justified in not trusting others, and this is following plenty of attempts to reach out and help him.

Steve Buscemi plays Pete’s owner, Del, and even as he puts on a persona of meanness, Del is a father figure for the 15-year-old Charley. Authorities try to help Charley find support, but he ignores them in favor of his quest.

There are small moments of tenderness that give a little support to the relationship. Pete approaches a fence, as if to say hi. Charley feeds him from his hand or shares water from the same jug. He cheers Pete on at a race, hoping the horse will survive to run again. However, these moments are overwhelmed by a discomforting myopia from Charley’s perspective, as he has trouble seeing past his own difficulties.

The story develops slowly and the emotional drive is not strong enough to propel enjoyment for two hours. The stapling of two stories — a horse and a boy, a boy and a quest — does not come off seamlessly, especially as certain characters suddenly disappear without much notice given to them. What comes next is a question that plagues Lean on Pete; not for a particular interest in the events, but for wondering if the story actually has a place it is able to go.

Aiming for an emotional journey, Lean on Pete comes across as a dull exercise in a boy’s unnecessary isolationism. The attempts to create connections in the beats of the story are as uncomfortable as the repeated, sudden bursts of light throughout the film, the shots cutting unceremoniously from night to day. There is a backbone missing to the central relationship of the plot and it cripples the entire film as a result.