As attendees of this week’s SXSW festival rush from one sold-out event to the next, they’ll likely walk right past some of Austin’s approximately 2,000 homeless residents, 20 percent of whom are 18 or younger. Across Texas, 113,000 students face homelessness, a problem exacerbated by a lack of resources outside the state’s metropolitan areas.
Homelessness is rarely depicted on the silver screen, and on the few occasions when feature films have engaged with the subject, they tend to focus on older characters (see: The Soloist, Time Out of Mind, The Saint of Fort Washington). So it’s exciting that one of the movies screening at SXSW is Lean on Pete, directed by Andrew Haigh. The movie centers on the plight of a soon-to-be-homeless teenager and his father, who’ve just moved to Portland, Oregon. Charley, 15, finds a job at a racetrack while his undependable single dad, Ray, gets into trouble.
Based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete opens as beanpole Charley meets Ray’s new girlfriend, who is cooking breakfast in his kitchen. We later learn that Ray (Travis Fimmel) sometimes leaves Charley at home alone for days on end to pursue trysts. Charley tries to escape by taking a job from a crotchety horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) to clean out stalls and do other grunt work. There, he befriends a quarter horse named Lean on Pete.
After Charley’s father leaves the picture, the boy takes to the road with the trainer and his jockey (Chloë Sevigny) full-time. He eventually learns that Lean on Pete is destined for slaughter in Mexico, and in an act of defiance, Charley steals a truck and trailer to cart the pair to Wyoming, where his aunt lives. In strokes of a modern Western, the two trek across the wilderness together, meeting colorful characters as they search for a new home.
During the approximately two-hour runtime, Charley shuffles between less-than-ideal living companions: an absentee dad and his girlfriend of the week; an abrasive horse trainer and his jockey; a rowdy pair of young war veterans on the High Plains. Throughout all this flux, Charley’s demeanor is the same. He is calm, polite, soft-spoken. Despite being a starving, homeless teenager in possession of a stolen racehorse, Charley is better adjusted and more resourceful than most of my friends from college.
And I don’t find that to be particularly believable. No one’s perfect, but Charley is damn close. Even when he siphons gas from a stranger’s car, or when he tries to bail on the check at a country diner, Charley is doing what he must to survive. It isn’t until he chooses to whack a robber in the head with a tire iron near the movie’s conclusion that a glimmer of the character’s complexity is revealed.
The protagonist gains some depth, at least, from the obvious analogy the film draws between him and Lean on Pete. Both are mistreated and alone and desperately seeking a real home. They are both runners (Charley was a football player when he attended school) but are bound by the circumstances of their lives. On their journey eastward, Charley tells Lean on Pete one of his fondest memories, that of staying over at a friend’s house and eating pancakes at the family table. He then urges the horse to keep moving. “This isn’t our home. We’ve got to keep going,” he says.
Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck tends to dwell on dark spaces in the film, but he also does an expert job of contrasting the sometimes oppressive darkness with shots of breathtaking sunsets and vivid scenery, especially as Charlie and Lean on Pete trek through the wilderness. (Though I am still a bit perplexed by the near-complete absence of rain in an Oregon-based movie.) And Buscemi, who manages to inject a rich personality into the callous horse trainer, gives a particularly good performance.
But even in its most gut-wrenching moments, the film feels disconnected and aloof. Perhaps that emotional distance was an intentional choice meant to reflect how Charley relates to the word around him. But it also impeded my ability to connect with the character or take any significant interest in the boy-and-his-horse quest.
Haigh should have explored Charley’s inner workings and conflicts instead of using the character as a blank canvas on which to paint the harsh realities and moral vagaries borne by a homeless youth. Even as the director deploys yet another lingering shot of Charley scrutinizing himself in a dirty mirror, we fail to get much further past his tranquil facade and into his mind. What’s going on in there? As the film drew to a close, I still wasn’t exactly sure.