Hooked on feelings: Andrew Haigh lets intuition, inner life lead in ‘LEAN ON PETE’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

AUSTIN — You want to engage a movie’s story. You want to feel for its characters and, at the end of it all, say it was a rewarding journey. But when a movie hits so close to home and is so devastating, how can someone muster up the courage to leave behind his or her own sufferings to endure another’s? Isn’t the idea to escape our lives when watching a movie?

Well, not always.

In the case of Andrew Haigh’s gut-punch of a drama, LEAN ON PETE, cinema also can be a place to learn and heal one’s self.

Don’t let the film’s trailer, about a boy (Charlie Plummer) and the horse he comes to care for, fool you. LEAN ON PETE is by no means an easy watch. Under the surface of a story that seemingly reflects THE BLACK STALLION is an INTO THE WILD type of journey about facing hardships and overcoming them. It may not be the sort of adventure that you will often revisit, but it’s one that you will actively relive in your mind for many years to come.

Charlie Plummer, left, and writer-director Andrew Haigh at the South by Southwest premiere of their new film, ‘LEAN ON PETE.’ Photo by Preston Barta.

“I realized some years ago that my films will get to audiences on a gut level, while others will say, ‘Eh. That doesn’t do it for me,’” Haigh said during an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival last month. “When I realized that, I thought, ‘Oh, OK. That’s all right. I’m probably making films for a certain kind of person.’”

Haigh (director of the Oscar-nominated 45 YEARS) said he came to understand that he has to forget about what an audience member is thinking about. If he were to worry too much about keeping everyone, he believes he would lose everyone.

“I hope it’s a film that will get under people’s skin. I want you to think about it when you leave the cinema and have it pop in your head later, even if it’s just a particular feeling. My films are about feelings. That, to me, is the fundamental importance — to feel something.”

Many of those feelings come from observations. Nothing in LEAN ON PETE is spelled out. So much depends on what you bring to the screen and how you react to certain situations. There are many wide shots and long takes, giving viewers the ability to digest everything in real time. Audiences can look from one side of the screen to the other and pick something out that the camera doesn’t necessarily draw attention to.

“I like to provide space for the actors and audience. The way we look at the world, it takes time for details to emerge. I didn’t do close-ups of things we are supposed to look at. I want audiences to watch a scene, have them drift away from characters and notice something. We don’t want to give anything away or be too obvious. It’s a fine balance,” Haigh said.

Plummer, who recently starred in Ridley Scott’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, portrays Charley Thompson. He’s a 15-year-old boy who shows enough talent to join the football team at his high school, but due to circumstances (a father who neglects him and moves him when things become too intense), Charley has to survive essentially on his own. He runs, steals and escapes, to the point where the line between crime and daily life is blurred. He doesn’t stop to analyze his situation or reflect on the larger implications of his plight. As Plummer points out, “he’s too busy trying to decide whether he should stay or run.”

“[Haigh] trusts his actors and audience. He isn’t trying to force a feeling on someone or show someone blatantly, but allowing viewers to have their own experience with the film,” Plummer said. “It’s a risk. Not everyone will connect with everything. But as long as we feel as though we made something we feel connected to and feels truthful, that’s all that matters.”

Charlie Plummer plays a 15-year-old boy who escapes his life with the company of a horse. Courtesy of A24.

LEAN ON PETE is based on the 2010 book by Willy Vlautin. Its novelized version is told completely from Charley’s point of view. The film version, on the other hand, follows Charley, but it observes him and the space he’s in.

“I want my films to feel like they’re objective,” Haigh said. “I’m not saying you are Charley. I want to take my time with my characters, similar to real life. I want to feel as though we are observing Charley’s life, but slowly, as the film goes on, it goes from being objective to you feeling as he does.”

Like Todd Solondz’s 2016 film WIENER-DOG, starring Greta Gerwig and Danny Devito, LEAN ON PETE focuses on a character that has many encounters on his journey, touching on many thematic elements in the process. In one sequence, Charley stumbles upon a ranch house owned by a family that takes Charley in, but have problems of their own, including making fun of their obese sister. What’s so heartbreaking about this scene is the ridiculed young woman is so kind and puts up with it. When Charley asks her why she just doesn’t leave, she replies: “I have nowhere else to go.”

“I didn’t want this to feel like some State of the Nation comment on the whole of America,” Haigh said when asked about the different topics brought up throughout the film. “You have to be careful. It all has to warrant its inclusion and serve Charley’s story.”

Charley’s story had a profound impact on Plummer. Plummer said after the film screened for audiences at SXSW’s opening night slot, he found himself getting emotional during the end credits as James Edward Barker’s musical score came up.

“It was hard, because it took me back to that place. By the end of my experience of doing the film, I had lived with that character for so long that it made a huge dent in me. I’m not sure if I will be able to watch it again anytime soon,” Plummer admitted.

As crushing as the film is, it’s a rewarding journey, especially during one key scene during its finale.

“It’s a moment of real truth. You realize that everybody has a difficult life. We sometimes forget that, because we are often so obsessed by our own identities,” Haigh said. “It’s lesson-filled moments such as this that make me want to tell stories. We all need a little compassion to learn about ourselves.”

LEAN ON PETE is now playing in select theaters. In the Dallas area, it’s showing at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.