I’m not much of an animal person. Hell, I’m barely a people person. So, it’s a wonder that Andrew Haigh’s note-perfect tale of a boy and his horse worked so well for me, engrossing me in every frame and beat the story takes. Certainly, I’m being reductive discussing Lean on Pete (based on the novel by Willy Vlautin) as just a story about a teenager and his companion because Haigh’s film is richly layered and evenly paced through the protagonist’s journey, creating something deeper and much more powerful than just another tale of boy and horse.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) recently moved to Oregon with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who had to relocate for his job. It’s never completely clear what his father does that caused another relocation but Charley and Ray don’t have much to get by on. Ray doesn’t seem like the most attentive father but 15-year-old Charley is fond of his dad. They catch up in the morning, over breakfast that Ray’s latest conquest shopped and cooked for them, and then go about their days.
“…Andrew Haigh’s note-perfect tale of a boy and his horse….”
While out for a run, Charley stumbles upon a racetrack, where he meets Del (Steve Buscemi), who immediately offers Charley some money to help him fix the tire on his truck. Del is a grumpy, world-weary man but becomes impressed with Charley’s work and extends him a job at the stable, caring for the horses, feeding them and walking them. He takes him on the road to various races with a jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), who encourages Charley not to get too attached to any of the horses. “They aren’t pets,” she warns him.
Charley has often had to think for himself and ignores Del and Bonnie’s attitude towards the horses and takes a liking to Pete, one of Del’s aging racehorses. When Charley’s home life takes a dark turn, he packs Pete up in Del’s truck and takes off without telling anyone. He sets his sights on Wyoming, in the hopes of reconnecting with an aunt he hasn’t spoken to in a few years.
Lean on Pete isn’t as twee as it might sound on paper because Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) is a much smarter storyteller than that. Every moment, every look and every word spoken between the characters feels so natural and earned, you leave the movie feeling like you know everyone you just saw on screen. The entire story is told with a quiet but punctuating lyricism, avoiding cliches and obvious histrionics to play up the drama of the story. Movies are rarely more effective when they are told through a naturalistic lens.
“…every look and every word spoken between the characters feels so natural and earned…”
Plummer was seen last year in All the Money in the World as the kidnapped John Paul Getty III and was quite good but the movie’s limitations only used his character as a prop. Lean on Pete gives the actor a chance at a major breakout, delivering a finely calibrated performance told through his eyes and the occasional reaction. Charley is often quite stoic and doesn’t say too much around people but when he’s on the road with Pete, he lets everything he is feeling out. It’s quite moving to see him rely on his horse for such comfort.
Charley seems like he can take care of himself but at the end of the day he is still just a kid and needs guidance but has no proper figure to do so (though Del does lecture him on proper table manners). Even when Charley acts like a teenager without a clue, Lean on Pete has us rooting for him. Beautifully photographed, acted and scripted, Lean on Pete is one of the best movies of the year, so far.
Lean on Pete (2018) Directed by Andrew Haigh. Written by Andrew Haigh. Starring Charlie Plummer, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny.