“Lean on Pete,” based on Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, is written and directed by Andrew Haigh. For those unfamiliar with the book, let’s not judge the film based on the poster. This is not a simple, sweet story about a boy and his horse. It’s a harsh and emotionally devastating film that delves into the societal issues and issues of health, welfare, and childhood instability and resiliency. Charlie Plummer stars in this evocative and poignant film as “Charley,” a boy whose life is wrought with abandonment and disappointments. but somehow has an intrinsically positive persona. As he is living in yet another new location with a less than attentive father (Travis Fimmel), Charley is left to his own devices and skills to create a life for himself in Portland. He randomly comes across a racetrack’s stable when he encounters a rough and seasoned horseman, “Del” (Steve Buscemi). Charley is immersed in the arena of horse racing as he begins to get a sense of accomplishment, earning money to buy groceries for he and his dad. But what lies ahead will change him forever.
The complex and deeply layered journey has just begun as Charley’s father’s choices catch up with him, leaving his son to truly fend for himself. Del becomes a surrogate father-figure, unbeknownst to him, and with barbed tenderness, the two build a relationship. As Charley learns of the fate of the horse he has grown to love, Lean on Pete, he finds himself on a life-altering path, searching for answers, stability and guidance.
“Lean on Pete” is Charley’s story of growing up too soon and the ramifications thereof. He’s still a boy yet he must use every instinct in order to just survive, making decisions along the way that are potentially deadly. His encounters bring us into the very real conditions that most of us turn a blind eye to—homelessness, the poor, the hungry—and remind us of how our country is suffering on many fronts.
Plummer is extraordinary in this role, giving a subtle and nuanced performance. We feel his every emotion and connect with him, wanting to somehow protect this boy. He simply breaks your heart as he creates a character that must build a coat of armor quickly and reluctantly. And in his eyes we see his sweetness and longing to be a part of a family, to be loved and not fear rejection and abandonment.
The story unfolds slowly, intentionally, allowing us to soak it all in as we are immersed into Charley’s life. Buscemi, of course, gives a great performance as the intimidating and rough-around-the-edges horse owner, not quite up to the Derby standards. He finds a way to show he cares about Charley, but doesn’t quite know how to rise to the occasion. Plummer and Buscemi together create this raw story, giving it a depth that perhaps equals the emotion of the book. Unfortunately, Fimmel and Alison Elliott’s performances are never quite believable, feeling rather stiff and unnatural, but these aren’t enough to take away from the overall effect story.
Cinematically, this film is gorgeous with its wide open shots capturing the vastness and beauty of the area and how this parallels Charley’s emotions and feelings of loss and hope. Haigh does an exceptional job of directing his main character and bringing the feelings of hopelessness and survival to the screen. It’s a harsh look at one boy’s life making you wonder how many other children out there are living in these extreme conditions. No, this isn’t a sweet “Lassie” type of story, but it will capture your heart.
3 1/2 Stars