How Andrew Haigh’s ‘Lean on Pete’ Understands the Effects of Trauma

Andrew Haigh’s 2018 drama Lean on Pete ends with Charley (Charlie Plummer), now in the care of his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott), unable to sleep. Her house is a rustic Americana time capsule. The palette is muted, running the gauntlet from black to beige, and the walls are adorned with little more than is necessary. There are a few pictures, some cross stitch, and nothing else – a décor that recalls the idiomatic truth of nothing lost, nothing gained. Charlie ambles to his aunt’s room and softly taps on the door until she invites him in. He’s uncomfortable and cloistered, and the verisimilitude of the dialogue and staging punctuate the growing chasm between Charley and his aunt. Though they’re only a few feet apart on the bed proximally, they are emotionally oppositional. “I get nightmares,” he says. There’s a long, oppressive beat. “About my dad.” Another beat. “About Pete, sometimes, just that he’s drowning and I can’t save him.” Charley is exhausted, monotone. “I just get really sad sometimes I can’t save him.”

Margy tries to close the emotional gap between them. She inches closer to Charley and reaches her arm out to him. “It’s okay, Charley. I’m here now, and the nightmares are gonna get better. They might not go away completely, but they’re gonna get better the more good times we have, and we’re gonna have good times, Charley. Promise.” Charley breaks down and cries. “I just miss him a lot. I miss him so much.” He can’t even get the final word out, stymied by the kind of cry that’s so raw with trauma and buried pain it fills the throat, preventing any and all noise from coming out. It’s a cry born of trauma. Bonnie Prince Billy’s cover of “The World’s Greatest” starts to play, an augur of hope.

Lean on Pete – based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin – follows 15-year-old Charley Thompson as he embarks on an odyssey across the American frontier following the death of his father. And Lean on Pete fundamentally understands trauma. Charley, trapped in both Western deserts and in the grief of his own mind, epitomizes loneliness, the kind of woebegone lost youth desperate for any semblance of connection to another living thing. Pete, for a great deal of the film, satisfies his primal need to both love and be loved. Horse movies writ large always trade-in sadness, as does Haigh, whose 2015 masterpiece 45 Years was a profoundly sad meditation on marriage and love whose final beat hurt more than it healed.

Similarly, just about every scene in Lean on Pete is unvarnished and thunderously sad. Charley, a rapscallion young man, is made of and for himself, living in the kind of unglamorous American poverty (the movie is set in Portland) that only an outsider such as Englishman Haigh could recognise. Charley’s born-to circumstances are hardscrabble and painful, the kind that engenders scaffolding micro-traumas, little pockets of adversity too small on their own but powerfully devastating when taken as a trauma-collective. Every shot is economical and non-fictitious, the trauma of Charley’s life – even before the death of his father — detailed plainly and without aggrandisement.

Charley is like a ghost in Portland, floating aimlessly between the couch and cube television set, between his own house and the crumbling architecture that lines the street he and his father landed on. Eventually, Charley makes his way to the local racetracks and meets both Del (Steve Buscemi) and Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), owner and jockey respectively of the quarter horse named Lean on Pete. Bonnie warns Charley not to get too attached to Pete – on the track, he’s a meal ticket, not a pet – but Charley, as those exposed to trauma are apt to do, develops an immediate and profound attachment to the horse, and after his father passes away and Charley learns Pete is set to be killed, Charley steals Pete and sets out as his own singular Corps of Discovery to find somewhere that he might call home.

The movie, four years later, remains one of the most unsparing explorations of trauma committed to film, a stripped-down tearjerker that temporally gets to the core of what trauma does to the human mind and heart. Trauma leads to risky behaviors. Charley steals a horse and assaults an employer. Trauma leads to sequestration. Charley abandons the care of the state in Portland to flee across the bounds of an austere dust bowl. There is beauty in the way Haigh films the Pacific Northwest, but there is also profound truth – Charley is but one of the millions of young Americans whose lives are just like this. Emotionally and physically laborious loneliness and grief, punctuated by abridged moments of happiness and relief. The mythic circumstances of Americana collapse – there is little chance that Charley’s young life, should he stay, won’t be very much the same years from now. Trauma is generational and almost cosmic in its impression – it stays forever.

Pete is mythic, too. He’s a crutch that keeps Charley from falling into the kind of underworld of poverty and grief that too many kids just like him are liable to do. When Pete is unceremoniously killed late in the movie – hit in the distance by a speeding car – Charley does indeed spiral. Only the longstanding memory of Pete keeps him afloat long enough to reunite with his aunt and tell her everything he needs to say without speaking a single word.

Lean on Pete, at times, comes close to becoming the kind of hardship-porn that defines so much of prestige cinema these days. Haigh, however, is restrained enough to keep things from becoming a slog of total desperation, the kind of movie where so many tragedies are piled atop Charley that it all becomes just too unbearable. When Charley meets his aunt, there is a silver lining. It’s not things that go bump in the night or monsters in the woods that are scary – it’s a life of loneliness and quiet pain that’s most frightening. It’s the trials and tribulations managed alone while parents and friends, like phantoms, drift in and out of life without fanfare. It is a life without permanence that scares the most, a life of fringe connections and meaning.

Lean on Pete speaks a fundamental truth for those suffering the most. It takes just one person. One person, one single living thing, to turn things around. Life is cruel and messy, and it will hurt and main whomever it can whenever it can. Sometimes the most you can hope to do is endure it. Tests of endurance are fortified, though, when there are others there, too. Friends, families, lovers, and communities fortify against trauma, inspiring a collective, commonwealth healing that, much like the micro-traumas of life, can heal little by little over time. The trauma might not go away completely, but it will get better. The more good times there are, it will get better.

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