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Andrew Haigh takes on horses, emotions in lyrical ‘Lean on Pete’

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Charlie Plummer plays a boy who bonds with a horse in “Lean on Pete,” based on the novel by Willy Vlautin. (Courtesy A24)

While director Andrew Haigh’s films are usually about humans looking to connect, his newest, “Lean on Pete,” which opens April 13 at the Embarcadero, tells a most unusual boy-meets-horse story.

It’s also unexpected.

“Horses terrify me,” says the English-born Haigh during a recent visit to The City. “I rode a horse once when I was young and I fell off. I never wanted to ride a horse again.”

Nevertheless, he got to know Starsky, the equine star of “Lean on Pete,” and conquered his fear. “They’re really interesting animals,” he says. “They pick up on how you’re feeling.”

Adapted from a novel by Portland-based Willy Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” tells the story of young Charley (Charlie Plummer), who is new in town and has no one other than his misfit father (Travis Fimmel).

Charley lands a job working for horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) at the local race track, helping prepare for races with jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny).

The complete opposite of “The Black Stallion,” the moving, lyrical “Lean on Pete” eventually peers into the dark side of racing, and into a wrenching sense of loss and loneliness, but in a powerful, poetic way.

As he did in his acclaimed “Weekend” and “45 Years,” Haigh expressively uses sound in “Lean on Pete.”

“You spend a long time going through sound effects trying to find the right sound of the gate, or what the gravel would sound like,” he says. “It’s all about those little details, especially when it’s about a kid who is going into a new environment. It’s sad to me how quickly you get used to things. Suddenly it’s all gone and you only hear the things you want to hear.”

Coming from England, Haigh knew next to nothing about horse racing in America’s northwest, so he learned. He spent time with Vlautin and then about three months driving around meeting trainers and jockeys.

“We went all the way from Montana to Colorado, just to get a sense of the world. It was enjoyable. And I wrote the first draft of the script during that time,” says Haigh, who also came to the Bay Area to shoot the HBO series “Looking.”

He says he has no trouble being an outsider, even in the world of horse racing. He relied on Vlautin for authenticity, but also stuck to his own vision.

“Coming from a different perspective on a society is really interesting,” he says. “I love the Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread,’ and that’s a version of Britishness and Englishness made by an American.”

“Just because we’re from different places doesn’t mean we don’t feel similar emotions,” he adds.

Haigh says the saddest thing about “Leon on Pete” is that it’s about a kid who has no one he can talk with, and when he finally opens up, it’s to a horse that can’t understand what he’s saying.

“But the horse can feel him and feel his emotional state, knows that he needs something,” he says.

He wonders why people don’t come equipped with the same ability. “It’s amazing how we’re not,” he says. “We pass people in the street and ignore them when they’re clearly suffering. It makes you wish we could all feel when someone needs something.”

IF YOU GO
Lean on Pete

Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
Written and directed by: Andrew Haigh
Rated R
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

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