It’s no revelation that movie trailers can sometimes (either intentionally or not) be misleading. Look to “Lean on Pete” as one of the more recent examples. For those unfamiliar with the 2010 Willy Vlautin novel of the same name, the trailer would have you expecting a gentile and sentimental ‘boy and his horse’ story. While most certainly moving, don’t expect “Lean on Pete” to fall into the “Black Stallion” category.
Writer and director Andrew Haigh (“45 Years”) has made a biting, tough-minded adaptation that still has a ton of heart. Practically all of that heart is found in the central character, a timid and reserved 15-year-old boy named Charley. He’s played by a Charlie Plummer who gives a phenomenal breakthrough performance. It truly is the key performance in the film as Charley is in every frame. Plummer is strikingly authentic in a role that could have easily gone too sentimental. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year.
Charley lives in low-income Portland, Oregon with his deadbeat but sometimes good-hearted father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Despite his father’s dysfunction you can see Charley’s adoration for him. Charley is a genuinely good kid and surprisingly lighthearted considering the cruddy hands he has been dealt. He crosses paths with a cantankerous horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) who hires him as a gopher and stablehand. The job puts a little money in Charley’s pocket and introduces him to a beautiful but worn down quarter horse named Lean on Pete.
Charley begins to form a bond with Lean on Pete even though he’s cautioned by Del’s part-time jockey (played by a very good Chloë Sevigny) “He’s not a pet. He’s just a horse.” But Charley sees him as more than that, perhaps even a kindred spirit. I won’t reveal much more but it’s here that the movie’s meaning becomes clearer. It’s a story of a boy yearning for stability and desperate to find some sense of home. It’s a bleak coming-of-age tale full of unflinching socioeconomic subtext with a rather cynical look at the “American Dream”.
Charley’s personal journey leads him to cross paths with a number of different people. Sticking with the running theme of working class hardship and poverty, nearly everyone he meets are stuck in their circumstances and compassion can be both precious and rare. Haigh skillfully manages these themes never allowing theme to dribble over into sentimentality or false optimism. At the same time it has been a while since I haven’t rooted for a character as hard a I did for Charley.
“Lean on Pete” is a tough watch and sometimes our lone refuge lies in the picturesque landscapes of cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. One of the year’s most heart-wrenching scenes is in a quiet moment where a worn and hungry Charley stares into a bathroom mirror. He reaches down and takes his belt in another notch. It’s a scene loaded with illumination and emotion. There are several instances where Haigh smartly leans on quietness and the stellar talents of young Plummer. It’s a key reason his film is so effective.
VERDICT – 4 STARS