Directed by Andrew Haigh
Lean On Pete sets up a certain sentimentality only to tear it down in abrupt, stark ways. You think you know where the movie is headed, but then it takes a sudden detour that feels surprising at first but overall in line with the movie’s unexpected tone. It’s like watching a Disney story play out in real life, encountering understandable obstacles that a more sentimental movie might ignore.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) has a lot in common with “Lean On Pete,” the horse he befriends. They are both domesticated, free only so far as their leash allows. While Pete is a racehorse (in a meager, local circuit), Charley is a distance runner who runs early morning routes around the house he shares with a loving but difficult father.
Drawn to the racetrack, and in an attempt to make some money, Charley will meet Pete through Del (Steve Buscemi), a brief surrogate father figure whose lesser qualities outweigh his nurturing ones. When it becomes clear that Pete’s best days as a racehorse all over and will soon be sold to be slaughtered, Pete takes the horse on the run and journeys through a pastoral landscape on his way from Oregon to Wyoming, where his Aunt Margy lives.
Within this journey the story takes a couple surprising turns that feel natural in hindsight, as if it never could’ve gone anywhere else. Charley is already a slender kid who only loses more weight the more miles he walks and the more meals he’s forced to skip. Every dollar and every meal have great significance to him, and as the story moves along we never forget it. We can almost always remember the last time Charley ate and exactly how much money, if any, he has in his pocket.
Charley’s journey is one of desperation and little romanticism. It’s less Disney (there is no glorifying the horse or horse racing) and more Paris, Texas. Charley roaming the desert in his faded hat is reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton doing much the same…
Charley’s journey is a traumatic one, and it brings him into contact with a variety of characters in a story structured something like Into the Wild or even Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar, stories that introduce the protagonist briefly to other characters whose conditions reflect the greater theme of the movie.
Charley meets characters defined to varying degrees by past traumatic experiences or even current ones. We learn a lot about who Del once was (life has beaten him down) as well as about the painful injuries endured by his jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). They share the understanding that horses aren’t pets and can’t be regarded as such. They are investments that appreciate and depreciate, and they thus treat Pete with a lack of empathy, resorting to a shocking mechanism to help him win a race.
Charley will grow jaded with them and their attitudes as he falls in love with the horse, but what he can’t see with them (their pain, vulnerabilities) is what he can’t miss with characters he later comes across.
Two of them are soldiers recently returned from war. Over a beer they discuss witnessing people blown up (“it was fucked up”), and though they barely scratch the surface you can hear the trembling of their voices. That same night Charley will meet a young girl who is severely mistreated by her grandfather (the same man who tells the traumatized soldiers, “ya gotta do what ya gotta do” in response to their candor about battle). Charley asks her why she puts up with her grandfather, and she says she has no choice, where else can she go?
Charley’s travels eventually bring him to a homeless shelter where he encounters the initial kindness of a man named Silver (Steve Zahn) but who later demands money for his supposed hospitality. In Silver’s desperation he exposed a much uglier, damaged side.
It’s not spoiling the movie to reveal that Charley eventually makes it up to Wyoming to his Aunt Margie (Alison Elliott), whom he hasn’t seen in three years. She represents safety, home, comfort etc. for our main character, but even she has had her own rough go of things, presumably, as she mentions quickly that while she recently got married, she even more recently got divorced.
Everyone has something they’re dealing with in Lean On Pete, and the movie makes you feel that weight, though most severely through Charley’s journey. He becomes a feral creature (a la Buzzard), a far cry from the sensitive boy at the start of the movie, though in the end we have reason to hope he can be that again.
Lean On Pete is a touching, heartbreaking story that does so much more than the movie’s poster and logline suggest. It takes the framework of a movie you’ve probably seen before (Seabiscuit, Marley & Me, My Dog Skip, Free Willy, War Horse) and deconstructs that tale to expose what must surely be going on underneath. A character like Charley is only as taken with Pete, presumably, because he has no one else in his life. Sure, a kid can love an animal, but this kid needs to love something precisely because of what else is missing in his life.
The movie focuses on all that which is missing, and it does so by making sure we can always sense how close to having nothing Charley is. He’s one step away from foster care if he’s lucky and certainly worse if he’s not careful.
Up Next: Hanna (2011), Phenomenon (1996), The Rider (2017)