In Lean on Pete, Charley’s search for home moves the plot, but the emotional journey to find home is at the heart of all Andrew Haigh’s work (Weekend, 45 Years, the TV show Looking). This essay is featured in our ebook on Lean on Pete, which you can purchase here.
This essay is also part of our 10th anniversary celebration of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Read all our articles on the film here.
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“Can I come in?” 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) is standing at the threshold of his kitchen when he poses this question to his father’s latest one night stand. “It’s your kitchen,” she replies. But no place really feels like it’s his to Charley, the quiet teenager at the centre of Lean on Pete. He has never felt at home or safe in a space. Even this kitchen is in a house in a new city, just the latest in a series of moves his father regularly puts him through. Before long, his father lands in hospital, and Charley sets off alone, in search of somewhere and someone to call home — first at the local horse racing stable, and later, on the road and into the wilderness, toward his long-lost aunt’s house.
Charley’s search for home moves the plot of Lean on Pete, but writer-director Andrew Haigh’s previous work also follows people either trapped by home or stagnated by their inability to find one. Among all of Haigh’s protagonists, Charley’s needs are the most basic: he literally needs a roof over his head and an adult to care for him. In contrast, Haigh’s other characters are all adults whose homes are often carefully built and hard won. These homes are at once physical manifestations of the characters who inhabit them, and also a source of suffocation, stunting their owners’ development — because of who they do or do not share it with. For Haigh, home is made complete by someone loving to come home to.
Andrew Haigh’s second feature, Weekend (2011)
In Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Russell’s (Tom Cullen) home is a quiet, safe space that he’s carefully carved out, away from the loud, disorienting, and often homophobic city. Russell grew up in foster care without a proper home, so having a place to call his own is especially significant. He’s made the apartment his own: postcards are arranged on the kitchen cupboards and taped to the wall of his bedroom in a collage. There are plants on every windowsill, brightening the space. His rooms are filled with things from charity shops, in part due to financial necessity, but also because Russell likes things with history — even someone else’s. At one point, he gives a speech about the mismatched mugs in his kitchen, positing a possible backstory for how one of them ended up in the charity shop. Inventing stories like that is half the fun because It imbues every object with meaning.
Russell’s home is a refuge so comfortable that it’s become a hideout. He practically hides from his window, from which he can hear homophobic slurs shouted. He’s on a high floor of an apartment tower, but he barely registers the view of the city laid out beneath him. He’s boxed himself into this private place, where he brings one-night stands and no one else. Retreating to the safety of his apartment has prevented Russell from being open with others about his life. More importantly, it’s prevented him from finding the romantic connection and intimacy he so craves.These homes are at once physical manifestations of the characters who inhabit them, and also a source of suffocation, stunting their owners’ development.Click To Tweet
That starts to change when Russell unexpectedly spends a weekend talking to, having sex with, and getting to know Glen (Chris New), an artist he picks up at a club for sex — in exchange for a conversation about it that Glen will tape the next day and use as part of an art installation. Glen is moving to America at the end of the weekend, so their connection is inherently fleeting. But it sparks a sea change. Their discussions about coming out and past flings are the first time we see that Russell really yearns for a partner and for romance. Glen pushes Russell out of his comfort zone, challenging him to enter spaces he wouldn’t otherwise — emotionally and physically.
Haigh registers Russell’s emotional changes in how he interacts with the outside world in how he moves through and manages his space. Walking through Nottingham at night, alone, the city is loud, and the screeching of the tram is deafening in the mix. But sitting on the tram with Glen, shot from afar, where the pair peek out from the crowd of moving people, it’s quiet enough for conversation. More than that, it’s pleasant. Together, they’ve carved out their own little world in the bigger, scarier one.In WEEKEND, Glen pushes Russell out of his comfort zone, challenging him to enter spaces he wouldn’t otherwise — emotionally and physically.Click To Tweet
The deeper Russell’s emotional connection with Glen, the more he comes out of his shell, and the more Haigh shoots him as a part of a bigger ecosystem. When they kiss passionately for the first time, Haigh pulls back to view them from outside, just one couple embracing at one window among many in the building. The film’s final scene finds Russell not hiding from the window but poking his head and torso out of it. The credits roll on a wide shot with the whole apartment building in the left third of the frame; for the first time, the cityscape isn’t something we’re looking down on from afar; it’s on equal footing with Russell’s apartment building. The world outside is no longer distant, but present and there for the taking.
45 Years (2015)
If Russell’s home in Weekend is too cozy, the house in 45 Years is at the other end of the spectrum. On the eve of her 45th wedding anniversary, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) finds her once-comforting life with her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) become suddenly uncertain when he gets a letter about a long-deceased old flame. The letter stirs up old emotions about who they were before they married, and the choices they made in building a life together.
Haigh consciously uses Kate and Geoff’s house as a metonym for their relationship. It’s full of lived-in details, from the bookcases packed so tightly you can get lost looking for a book, to the chimes in the backyard that ring in the wind, to the kitchen full of papers, dishes, and stuff. In one scene from the Criterion release’s audio commentary, Haigh dwells on the ugly, beat-up barbecue at the back of the frame because it carries history: a once-nice appliance that has since fallen into disuse and moved into outdoor storage.
The one thing their home doesn’t have is photos of the couple. That’s because Kate and Geoff haven’t done much reflecting on who they are as a couple — before that fateful letter arrives. The letter renders their once-comfortable home foreign. The first thing Kate does on hearing of its receipt is walk away from the kitchen table, where Geoff is seated, and toward the counter. Here, she can turn her back on Geoff while putting the kettle on, to register the discomfort and uncertainty she’s feeling. Her instinct is to look for somewhere to hide in her own home.
They stash their secrets, and their junk, in the attic, where it’s out of the way and easy to ignore. But when Kate decides to climb the ladder into that hidden part of the house, she’s heading toward a discovery she can’t un-know. It throws her off balance for the rest of the film.
By contrast, the open spaces of the outdoors are a respite for Kate, away from Geoff. Haigh captures the outdoors largely in wide shots where mounds of tall trees — as if out of a David Hockney painting — tower over Kate and the frame, rendering her small and insignificant by comparison. Every day, Kate walks her dog outside, and we watch her slowly traverse the frame from one side to the next, taking minutes. It’s slow and calm, unlike the quiet tension that percolates between Kate and Geoff at home. The last time Kate is truly calm and happy is in the film’s opening: outside her house, talking to her former student, about to go back in from walking her dog. Haigh establishes the outdoors an escape from domesticity, and her relationship, before we even know there’s something she needs to escape.
Andrew Haigh’s HBO TV series, Looking, is about gay men caught between their traumatic childhood homes and their newfound adult ones. Looking’s characters have identities in transition — each spends the series looking equally for home, a future, and a partner — so their homes are the most nondescript of any Haigh screen work. None of them are really living the lives they want to live. Their homes feel like temporary residences, more like places to sleep than to settle.In LOOKING, the characters' homes feel like temporary residences, more like places to sleep than to settle.Click To Tweet
The series’ main protagonist, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), lives in a flat most notable for its San Francisco architecture than any personal touches. Patrick knows San Francisco is the place to be as a gay man, but he has yet to sort out his identity in that space. Patrick’s impersonal apartment reflects personal uncertainty: he’s hesitant to put his stamp on a space because he’s worried about what he “should” be. He feels like the series’ youngest by far, even though he’s the same age as Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and the series’ most professionally successful character, . Still dealing with shame about his homosexuality, he’s never had a long-term romantic relationship.
Patrick’s best friend, the recently-turned-forty Dom (Murray Bartlett), lives with Doris (Lauren Weedman), Dom’s childhood pal and former girlfriend from when he was still closeted. Their apartment is a basic high-rise two-bedroom, with white walls and few decorations. It’s as if neither of them expected to be living like college roommates for two decades.In LOOKING, Patrick’s impersonal apartment reflects personal uncertainty: he’s hesitant to put his stamp on a space because he’s worried about what he *should* be.Click To Tweet
Patrick is emotionally stunted because he was never able to be open about his identity in his childhood home. As an adult, he misguidedly thinks home should be a safe space to let out his worst impulses because, finally, there’s no need to hide. He hasn’t learned yet that being yourself isn’t the same as being your worst self. It’s why his bland apartment is where Patrick makes his most disastrous decisions. He ruins his chance at sex with Richie (Raúl Castillo) by making a misjudged comment about uncut penises that makes it seem like he’s looking for a hookup rather than a relationship. He goes into a full AIDS panic attack in “Looking for Results” instead of dealing with what’s really bothering him, which is how irresponsible he was in his sexual dealings with his boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey). When he’s unhappy after two abortive relationships, Patrick decides to change himself by changing his home, hosting a Halloween party to become a “fun gay”. But then he gives into his worst impulses, alienating friends with a cruel, drunken speech.
Change — or the possibility for it — only happens away from home, usually in the wide open spaces of the San Francisco landscape. In “Looking for the Future”, Patrick and Richie spend the entire day together with no interruptions from other subplots. By going outside and becoming tourists in their own city, they find something new and foreign outdoors that opens up new possibilities in their own lives. They’re only able to broach the topic of marriage when they’re walking beside Ocean Beach, looking out at the view, and finally, at the gorgeous lookout point of the Sutro Baths. When Dom and Doris finally manage to “break up” so they can have meaningful romantic relationships with other people, they talk outside, at night, overlooking a view of the city. It’s neutral ground, away from their home together and Doris’ new home with her boyfriend, but it’s also yet another open space inviting the possibility for change.When he doesn’t like himself in a place, he leaves, rather than trying to deal with the one constant — himself.Click To Tweet
Patrick is constantly running away from home: when he doesn’t like himself in a place, he leaves, rather than trying to deal with the one constant — himself. He thinks leaving is all he needs to do to break bad habits. When he felt stifled by his childhood home in Denver, he ran away to Stanford and then San Francisco, but he was still haunted by what his mother would think of his paramours. Dragging his friends to a cabin in the woods in the season two opener, “Looking for the Promised Land”, is Patrick’s attempt to get everyone away from the trauma they’ve recently lived through in San Francisco. He may have left the city, but he carries that trauma with him, and he literally drags it out to meet him when he invites Kevin up there for sex.
Patrick, like everyone else in Looking, only finds his footing in adulthood when he finally goes back to the initial site of his trauma: his childhood home. Looking’s cancellation hit so hard in part because we never see Patrick doing that hard work of making peace with his early life. Instead, we only see the result: in Looking: The Movie, Patrick returns to San Francisco for a weekend after six months spent in his hometown of Denver. He’s finally gotten over his bottom shame, but embraced rimming. He’s no longer embarrassed to tell people his job title because he’s finally doing what he wants instead of just waiting for a promotion that lets him do it. And he’s finally able to be there for his friends, without making it about him, because he’s dealt with his shit. Season one ended with Richie on Patrick’s doorstep breaking it off because he didn’t think Patrick was ready for a relationship. Looking: The Movie ends with the pair ready to give it a go. This time, it’s Richie who needs support while he gets ready to move forward with his life.
Lean on Pete (2017)
Although Charley’s situation in Lean on Pete is the most desperate among Haigh’s protagonists — he’s literally homeless — he’s also the least willing to settle, perhaps because he knows how awful that can be. Time and again, he turns away from help (which is usually positioned behind the camera), and runs away. When his father gets beaten to a bloody pulp in the middle of the night, and the cops show up, he runs away, into the back of the frame, as soon as there’s a threat of them calling child services. The same happens every time he encounters an adult authority figure whose version of help means separating him from his goal: getting to his aunt’s home. For Charley, the only adequate home is with his aunt — even though it’s far away, somewhere he’s never been. In Charley’s mind, he’s not homeless; he’s just on his way home.In Charley’s mind, he’s not homeless; he’s just on his way home.Click To Tweet
Throughout the film, Charley stumbles on possible homes and pseudo-parental figures. Were he less strong-minded, he might have been willing to settle. First, there’s the horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), who takes Charley under his wing, introduces him to the racehorse Lean on Pete, and pays him for work at the stables. But Del is tempestuous and capricious: nice one minute and mean the next. With Del comes Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), his jockey, and Haigh toys with the image of a maternal and paternal figure when the three of them are driving in the car — Charley and Del in front, and Bonnie in back.
They’re almost like a regular family, emphasis on the almost. Later, stumbling through the desert with Pete in tow, Charley spots a red house on the horizon. The colour red is used sparingly in the film, which makes this house seem like a potential oasis as he approaches. That line of thinking is interrupted as soon as the owners open the door, revealing the loud sounds of video games in the background: this is not a quiet, safe space. Charley’s repeated rejection of these substitute homes shows us how tightly he’s clung to the dream of one particular kind of home: a place where he’s safe, and loved, and where he belongs.
Haigh regularly frames Charley through doorways and windows, liminal spaces that reinforce how much he doesn’t belong. At the breakfast table, in the film’s opening, his conversation with his father is shot from the doorway to his father’s room, the one forbidden part of the house. Later, we watch Charley through the doorway to his father’s hospital room, yet another in-between space. When Charley gets caught attempting a dine and dash, we see him trapped in a room, behind a doorway, unable to escape but desperate to.
By contrast, in the vast expanse of the great outdoors Charley doesn’t seem constrained by the people and places around him. Only in the wilderness, with Pete, far away from other people, is he able to speak at length, telling stories and expressing his emotions. It’s when we start to realize how much he’s been holding in. The wilderness belongs to nobody, so at least he isn’t out of place, but it is a dangerous place where Charley and Pete can barely survive. They’re walking toward the possibility of more stability, for Charley at least — saving Pete is a fool’s errand. But the path they tread is far from easy. Leaving your comfort zone never is in Haigh’s films, and you have to go outside, into the lonely but beautiful scenery to do so.For Andrew Haigh, home is made complete by someone loving to come home to.Click To Tweet
All of Haigh’s films are particularly attuned to sound design, but for Charley especially, peace and home can only be found in the quiet. The danger of a loud bang in the night, of an intruder charging in, is the scariest thing. When Charley goes for a morning run around Portland, at the beginning of the film, we can hear the sounds of cars driving by on the highway and of the nearby warehouses and factories. It’s not stentorian, but it’s not quiet either. When he’s at his most destitute, in Denver, the city sounds feel like they’re turned up to eleven: the traffic and the passersby are deafening.
The closest Charley comes to comfortable silence is walking Pete outdoors — and when he finally finds his Aunt Margie (Alison Elliott). Pete is inextricably linked to quieter locations in part because Charley finds solace in Pete: the only time Charley really starts to talk and tell his own story is to Pete. The film’s sounds keep home on Charley’s mind and ours: a child’s voice can often be heard softly in the background, calling after a parent. It’s a reminder of what Charley doesn’t have: parental guardianship and stability. When Charley finally does find a mature adult to care for him, he locates her in the library, a quiet space where she gives him the first welcome he’s received since the film began.In LEAN ON PETE, Haigh regularly frames Charley through doorways and windows, liminal spaces that reinforce how much he doesn’t belong.Click To Tweet
There’s a three-beat in the film that finds Charley falling asleep peacefully, only to be suddenly awoken in the middle of the night, with a hard cut and a loud sound. It happens in Portland when his father gets fatally injured, and it happens again when he’s taking temporary shelter in the van of a violent drunk (Steve Zahn) that he met at a homeless shelter. The third time, however, is different: he’s in his aunt’s house, and it’s his own bad dreams that awake him rather than external danger. For the first time, he’s able to find someone to comfort him and reassure him. In his aunt’s bedroom, they hatch a plan for their life together, and she hugs him tight, reminding him that things will get better. He’s home now.
The final scene of Lean on Pete finds Charley, a former champion runner, running for pleasure in the neighbourhood where his aunt lives. In a single uninterrupted take, the camera follows Charley from behind as he calmly navigates the twists and turns of the road. Rather than running away from us in a still frame, or being interrupted by cuts as in his previous run in the film’s opening, nothing interrupts him. When he stops, he turns toward us and takes a breath. He’d been holding it since the film began. Only now that he has a real home, a place and a guardian, can he begin to breathe.
This article was originally published on May 27, 2018.