'Lean on Pete' Is a Deep and Moody Film That'll Blow Your Teen Away

Lean On Pete is the story of Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and a racehorse—a source of unconditional love—as the boy grapples with life’s harsh realities.

When at-risk teen Charley arrives in Portland—one of the many cities he’s been bounced to in his young life—with his wayward and immature father Ray (Travis Fimmel), both of them hope for a fresh start after a series of tough breaks. While Ray plummets into personal drama, Charley finds acceptance and camaraderie at a local racetrack where he lands a job caring for an aging Quarter Horse named Lean On Pete. The horse’s cantankerous, world-weary owner Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) and his bruised and weathered jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) help Charley—in spite of themselves—taking the boy under their wings and giving him purpose. This is not the prestigious Triple Crown, though. The tracks on which Pete runs are ramshackle and peopled by those eking out livings on the backs of horses who are literally worked to death.

Pete is no exception but everything changes when Charley discovers that his beloved friend is bound for slaughter, prompting him to take extreme measures. Charley and the racehorse head out into the great unknown alone, embarking on an odyssey across the new American frontier in search of his Aunt Martha (Rachael Perrell Fosket). He’s not quite sure where she lives, as she and his father had a falling out years ago. His aunt has become idolized in his memories, and so Charley believes if he and Pete can just make it to her house they will be safe. Charley meets several characters along the way but rather than just plot devices to further the story, each is a fully-realized person. Some are kind and giving, while others are cunning and deceitful. In any case, we are reminded that human connection, no matter how brief, is essential to our well-being and growth.

Without ever feeling melodramatic or manipulative, this is a poignant and absorbing story. There aren’t many movies made like Lean On Pete anymore. It brings to mind the hard-hitting and thought-provoking coming-of-age dramas for and about teens that were popular in eras past. Think: J.T. (1969), Over the Edge (1979), and Sylvester (1985). If there is a fairly recent film Lean On Pete brings to mind, it’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) the story of a drifter and her dog.

When Charley acts on his impulse to take the horse and run, it’s with the innocence and confidence of a man-child who cannot foresee the consequences of his actions. Director Andrew Haigh lets us experience what’s happening without much foreshadowing and never with contrived music cues. Plummer’s performance is truly flawless and wholly believable as he and his beautiful horse trot through this slow burn, textured snapshot of the contemporaneous underclass. Haigh is a virtuoso of the unvarnished human experience, as proven in his previous films, which include Weekend and 45 Years. But this is the first time he’s made a movie that will speak to teens as well as adults.

It doesn’t hurt that Lean On Pete is based on a powerful and critically acclaimed novel (of the same name) by Willy Vlautin. The book made Uncut’s Top Ten Books of 2010 and the Oregonian‘s and Chicago Sun Times‘ Best Books of 2010, and was Hot Press #1 Book of the Year. It was inevitable that someone would snatch the film rights; thank goodness the story fell into the hands of Haigh.

The movie is filmed in a naturalistic yet deliberate and thoughtful manner, and its tasteful and subtle score supports the action nicely. The horses are dealt with respectfully and with little over-sentimentality (for example, Pete is not imbued with any anthropomorphic characteristics).

The movie is Rated R, but unless your kids are quite young, don’t let that deter you. Lean On Pete is rated as such because it accurately depicts the way people on the backstretch and those with underprivileged upbringings actually speak, the things they talk about, and what they do. It’s not exploitative in any way. Every single F-bomb is spoken with the TNT of truth behind it. There’s another reason the movie is meant for mature audiences [spoiler alert!] …Pete dies, and it’s in a rather tragic manner. Still… it’s true to the novel and the loss of his horse is an essential element to Charley’s coming of age.

While there’s nothing wrong with the Ready Player Ones of the world, it’s reassuring to know that Lean On Pete also exists. While it’s a sad and sometimes brutal story, it’s also an important one.

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