It’s a movie about a boy, a horse and the setbacks that befall them – so you can be forgiven for walking into Lean On Pete and immediately thinking you’ve just landed right smack dab in the middle of Tearjerker Central. Don’t worry: British writer-director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) avoids sentiment – if anything, he’s allergic to it. Sobs are earned the hard way in this moving drama, which grips you with such scrappy humor and no-bull grit and grace that you’ll be hooked.
Talented newcomer Charlie Plummer – he was damn good as J. Paul Getty’s kidnapped grandson in All the Money in the World – stars as Charley, a motherless boy who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his jobless father, Ray (Travis Fimmel). The old man s also soon out of the picture, so the teen scrapes by working for Del (Steve Buscemi in hardass mode), a local horse trainer. It’s there that Charley develops a bond with a horse named Lean On Pete, a five-year-old about to outlive his usefulness. For Del and the other adults around the track, including Chloë Sevigny as a jockey with her own wounds to heal, the animal is future dog food, nothing more. But to Charley – his face a blank page life is just beginning to scribble on – Pete is a kindred spirit. Without a dime to his name, he offers to buy the horse from Del. No dice. Eventually, the lad has no choice but to hit the road, walking with Pete (he never rides) toward some vague vision of the future and nurturing freedom. Harsh reality intrudes.
Sounds familiar, right? But it’s what Haigh makes of the material – you only think you’ve seen it before – that leaves an inedible impression. There’s nothing rushed about his approach, and working from the novel by Willy Vlautin, the filmmaker shows a poet’s eye for landscape and a gift for finding the random gesture that defines a character. Charley meets many people on his journey, affecting him in ways too moving to spoil. Anchored by Plummer’s extraordinary, acutely observed performance, the hypnotic and haunting Lean on Pete works miracles in miniature, painting a portrait of a marginalized America that cuts deep.