As a genre, horse movies tend to focus on a couple things: an almost supernatural bond between man and beast, and/or the indomitable spirit of both creatures. The reliance on these tropes makes for a lot of bland, color-by-number features. But every once in a while something novel emerges.
While Lean on Pete carries the usual hallmarks, it’s by no means a typical horse story.
The movie starts out as a slice-of-life portrait, detailing the relationship between 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel). The two have recently moved to Portland, and with his dad gone much of the time and no friends yet, Charley jogs around the city. He discovers a nearby racetrack and, after helping an old horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) change a tire, asks for a job.
It’s here Charley meets Lean on Pete, a losing quarter horse that Del describes as a “pussy.” Charley—a soft-spoken and gentle kid—feels an immediate connection with the animal.
When his dad is hospitalized, Charley begins spending more time at the track. Eventually Pete, whose foot has been bothering him, loses a race, and Del tells Charley he’s selling the horse. To save Pete from the slaughterhouse, Charley steals Del’s truck with the horse in tow and heads east in search of an aunt who may or may not live in Wyoming.
At this point the narrative changes pretty dramatically. A coming-of-age tale and road-movie odyssey, Lean on Pete expands its focus beyond Charley’s relationship with Pete to the broader issue of youth homelessness in America. As Charley siphons gas, dines and dashes, does whatever he has to do to survive, he slips further and further into a nightmare. And the sobering conclusion we land on—regardless of Charley’s fate—is that for millions of American kids, this isn’t a movie. It’s their reality.
Director Andrew Haigh does a phenomenal job translating Willy Vlautin’s 2010 book to the silver screen. His approach feels both tender and matter-of-fact, singular and far-reaching. Charley’s quest is presented with disturbing realism without ever being heavy-handed. The result is a drama that feels like it could be a documentary. Given the subject matter, that’s a powerful quality.
Complementing Haigh’s work behind the camera, Charlie Plummer delivers an incredibly poised effort for an actor of any age, let alone an 18-year-old. Whether he’s tending to Pete or committing a crime, we root and lament for Charley. That’s in large part thanks to Plummer’s understated and endearing performance. He drives home just how easy it is for even the nicest person to fall into the margins.
While Lean on Pete reaffirms certain aspects of the human condition—the will to survive, that ability to carry on—it’s more than anything a powerful and terrible reminder of the hardship many children face in this country.
Lean on Pete
Director: Andrew Haigh
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn, Charlie Plummer
Theater: Now open, Edina Cinema
More from Movies