VENICE, Italy (AP) — It's a rule of cinema that a movie about a boy and a horse will tug at the heartstrings.
Venice Film Festival entry "Lean on Pete" is no exception. Andrew Haigh's drama is about Charley, a lonely 15-year-old boy who befriends a tired old racehorse and sets out on a perilous journey across the American West.
The movie is set in a contemporary working-class America of motels, diners and grubby racetracks, but Haigh says it also has "almost a fable-esque element about it."
"Traditional folk tales are set in very bleak environments, often, but they have a slight beauty to them at the same time," Haigh told the Associated Press Friday as rain lashed Venice's beach-fringed Lido island.
"Lean on Pete," one of 21 films competing for festival's Golden Lion prize, is the first American movie by British director Haigh. His past two films focused on two young gay men who have a brief but intense relationship ("Weekend") and a long-married couple at a crisis point ("45 Years").
Haigh said all his films have been about "contemporary loneliness and absence," and "Lean on Pete" continues the theme.
Based on a novel by U.S. writer Willy Vlautin, it centers on Charley, who has spent his life moving from town to town with his loving but feckless father. In need of both money and affection, he winds up at the track helping a rackety horse trainer played by Steve Buscemi, and a kindly but steely jockey played by Chloe Sevigny.
Any hopes they will be a surrogate family are soon dashed, and Charley's isolation worsens. Soon the horse Lean on Pete is his only companion.
"He's such a good kid, but incredibly isolated and lonely," Haigh said. "Everyone disappoints him."
As Charley and his silent companion strike out from Oregon for Wyoming, the film is powered by a touching and understated central performance by 18-year-old Charlie Plummer.
"I think he just possesses something that so many other actors don't have, some kind of innate subtlety and sensitivity," Haigh said of Plummer, who is soon to appear as wealthy kidnap victim John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott's "All the Money in the World."
"I think he has a way of finding some kind of truth in a scene that feels surprising."
The film takes an effectively understated approach to depicting the hardscrabble underside of American life, never overplaying the grittiness even as Charley's situation becomes more desperate.
"We were careful not to amp up the Americana of the story," Haigh said. "Because for those people who live there, it's just where they live. The same with the landscapes — we wanted to show those landscapes, show Charley within those landscapes, but not fetishize those landscapes."
The film's final major character presented his own challenges. Haigh said working with Starsky, the horse who played Pete, was "like working with a very small child."
"The horse was very well trained," he said "You work out in pre-production what you want the horse to do, whether you want it to lift its leg (and so on). It's all very precise.
"By the time you're shooting it kind of works all right, but it is still a horse. You can't make it do something it doesn't want to do."
Plummer, who spent several weeks building a bond with the horse before filming started, said acting alongside an animal was challenging but rewarding.
"I think the horse did a tremendous job in the film, and I think he gives a wonderful performance," he said.
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