Moving On, Moving Up, Moving Out

Lean On Pete (15) 2017 France/UK 122mins. A film by Andrew Haigh, from the novel by Willy Vlautin; with Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel. 

A film set in America, based on an American book, but not really an American film, the clue being in the closing credits: directed by Andrew Haigh, auteur, British, also responsible for the film about a marriage in which nothing much happens for 45 years until a frozen (literally) ex-lover pops up and turns all to chaos. Unfair? A little. But there is something specifically American missing, or mislaid, or not deemed important, or maybe not even known about, that makes watching this an odd sort of out-of-body experience, as though you are in a parallel universe, or cinema at least, and the real film, the American version, is playing next door.

Ask someone, anyone, what America, the US, means to them: wide open spaces, Florida, money, hamburgers, immigrants, civil rights, the list is endless, but at the bottom of it all is an idea, the idea really, that it’s is all about moving: moving on, moving up, moving West, moving East, North, South, down river, up in the world, moving out. And all this moving involves re-defining yourself. You might be an individual, but that individual is mutable. So mutable, in fact, that if you want to move successfully, first you have to move yourself, first become the person who could conceivably be whatever you want to be.

Charley, the hero of Lean on Pete, is focused on precisely the opposite. He wants to stop moving, to settle, to be still. He’s had enough of moving. It’s difficult not to agree with him on this, given his experiences. There are echoes of Huckleberry Finn (problematic echoes given Charley goes on the lam with a horse, whereas Huck escapes with a slave who is moving toward freedom) but for Mark Twain (real name Sam Clemmens - all is change) movement was essentially optimistic, fundamentally good; the expedition to something better was never ending; embrace the journey, move for its own sake.

And here’s where this film seems strangely untethered from its setting: Charley appears completely oblivious to this central idea of America; it’s as if he missed the memo, was out of the room when American idealism was distributed, grew up in a completely different place altogether. Was that place Europe perhaps? Europe where, let’s face it, no one moves anywhere, and certainly doesn’t want to change, either personally or geographically, the thing being to find your niche and stick to it.

Looked at another way, is this an expression of a Trumpian America, one in which movement of all sorts is now frowned upon? Making America great again actually means settling everything down, staying where we are, dispensing with idealism, waking up from the American Dream? Examining profound social issues thoughtfully and carefully is very different from alluding to a cultural change accidentally, a stopped clock is correct twice a day and all that, and just because the film deals with that bloc of the population, so discussed and defined of late, the white working class, without a so-called college education, doesn’t mean it’s saying anything particularly interesting about that specific demographic or their relationship to their or anyone else’s idea of what America is or should be.

The problem is even deeper than that. It’s as if the film makers assumed that so long as the film was about an individual then it was, per se, American. But the American individual is a very specific beast. Or idea. The American individual is an invention of itself. It can be what ever it wants to be. There are lots of examples: Breakfast at Tiffanies, everything by Philip Roth, Arthur MIller’s Death of a Salesman, etc. This may explain why Trump voters are incensed at being considered stupid, deplorable, whatever. You aren’t just criticising them, you are criticising their choices and that really is unforgivable. They are what they want to be. They are self-actualised, in contrast to the European individual, who is the result of circumstance. William and Kate’s (you know who I mean) latest is born a prince and, presumably, will die one. The Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn are so because they say so. That they are tarred and feathered and run out of town doesn’t in any way lessen the reality of their self-invented personas.

Charley, in contrast, is as trapped by his persona as if he were a Russian peasant, or an English prince for that matter. The possibility of self-invention, self-actualisation simply doesn’t exist as an option for him. And though his journey, the movie, is filled with incident, his character is strangely passive; neither fish nor fowl; not depicted as struggling to create his own persona, nor fighting against the circumstances which he has been handed.

This film seems, whether by accident or design, to have ignored or assumed is irrelevant, that individuality, what actually a person is, and how that person conceives her or himself to be or may become, is a particular cultural construct, varying wildly between countries, societies, past and present, and is fundamental to any kind of artistic endeavour. (It drives me nuts, for example, that the artistic industry in Australia insists on assigning an individual artist to a particular work of Aboriginal art when that art is an expression of a community or group, and that their idea of an individual is completely different from our Western conception.) In other words, taking the concept of an individual as defined by one culture and placing that concept in a different context produces a result which can only be described as unsettling.

Paul Corcoran