Andrew Haigh’s new drama, Lean On Pete, tells a heartbreaking story of the bond between a teenager and his horse that is unlike any other coming-of-age film. While it might seem to be, Lean on Pete isn’t a true story, but rather an adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same name. And although the tale is not based on Vlautin’s actual life story, it does take inspiration from the author's current hometown, Scappoose, Oregon.
In Lean On Pete, Charley, a 15-year-old frustrated with his negligent upbringing, lives with a single father who can barely keep things afloat after his wife abandoned the family. Charley's life changes once he meets Del, a horse trainer who offers him a job managing his horses and introduces him to the world of horse racing. Pete, an aging quarter horse, stands out to Charley, and he immediately forms a strong bond with him. Meanwhile, Del becomes some sort of paternal figure, providing Charley an escape from his tumultuous family dynamic. But upon learning Del's plans to send Pete to a slaughterhouse in Mexico, Charley decides to trek across the frontier with the horse to Canada and find his estranged aunt Martha, of whom he has fond childhood memories.
What makes the movie so compelling is director Haigh's ability to portray this story in such a realistic manner, as much of the film looks into rural America’s hardships. To make Lean on Pete feel as heartbreaking real as possible, the filmmakers took on extensive, immersive research and received plenty of help from Vlautin to make sure the movie portrayed Charley’s story in an authentic way, according to Screen Daily. Before beginning to adapt the novel, Haigh spent time with the author in Oregon, where Vlautin showed him the race tracks that inspired the novel.
In addition, Haigh embarked on a journey of his own, retracing Charley’s footsteps by visiting the same locations from the novel, using them as inspiration for an even more realistic approach at writing the screenplay. By getting to know the people in those communities, he was able to shape the characters and make them feel fully-formed. “There’s a real sense of community that exists there but it’s not an easy life. These aren’t people that make a lot of money,” Haigh told Screen Daily.
Lean On Pete greatly differs from other horse-themed classics like Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, and Flicka, as it tackles much darker themes than those movies. But even so, it will resonate with viewers who can identify with Charley’s unwavering determination to do anything in order to achieve happiness, as well as his heartbreak when he finds himself losing the things he cares about most in life.
Yet when faced with these challenges, Charley strives to survive. Coming-of-age films often focus on middle class characters who deal with struggles such as dysfunctional family dynamics, first loves, and the changes that come with adulthood. Lean On Pete offers a fresh perspective that isn’t often seen in films with teen protagonists, showing a darker side to adolescence in a world where there is too often little access to necessary resources. By not sugarcoating Vlautin’s brutal, poignant portrayal of the American working class, Haigh is able to offer a new kind of figure young viewers can look up to, and Lean on Pete bcomes a universal story.
When the movie premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and audiences now will likely react similarly. Even though it’s not based on a real story, Lean On Pete’s powerful narrative will resonate with many who can relate to Charley’s journey.