By Jim Slotek
As a public service, it can’t be said enough times that Lean On Pete – which is about three-quarters the story of a boy and his horse – is not the story of a boy and his horse in the Disney sense.
Taken from the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, the movie by Andrew Haigh looks deceptively like a three-act inspirational tale for a while. This, in retrospect, seems like a hook to fish the audience into a story of teenage descent into poverty and homelessness. Depending on what you want to read into it, Lean On Pete is about the dangerous ease of hitting rock bottom, about the plight of modern manhood and about the disintegration of the American Dream.
Whatever, I liked the horse story best.
The movie rests on the slight but deceptively strong shoulders of Charlie Plummer, the young, quietly-expressive actor who stole whole swaths of the Ridley Scott film All the Money in the World. Plummer plays Charley, a barely-parented 15-year-old who’s just moved to Portland, Oregon with his under-employed dad Ray (Travis Fimmel), whose presence at their home is unpredictable. The result is that the fridge is often empty, and dinner is as likely to be a can of Chef Boy R Dee as anything else.
Things look up for Charley when he is hired on a whim at a racetrack by gruff-but-goodhearted Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse owner working carnival racetracks for meagre payoffs with second-rate horseflesh and a beat-up, tough-as-nails female jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). While learning the ropes, Charley becomes attached to one horse in particular, an aging nag named Lean On Pete. This, it turns out, is not a good idea. As Chloe warns presciently, "He's not a pet, Charley."
Two parts of Charley’s low-rent but liveable world implode at once. Ray is a victim of an act of violence that removes him from Charley’s world and open to being taken by State social services. Meanwhile, “Pete” (as the horse is known in shorthand) is nearing the end of the line, and Del announces his intention to sell him – literally down a path to the slaughterhouse.
In a normal movie narrative, it would be the climax of the movie when Charley decides to kidnap Pete and take him on a road-trip to the home of, Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott), a loving relative who’d once tried and failed to adopt Charley.
But Haigh is fairly slavish in his adaptation of the book. And so we end up with two movies – a fairly focused one about Charley’s discovery of the horse-racing life and an unaccustomed feeling of belonging, and a meandering one, in which he plays detective while scrounging for food and siphoning gas to fuel his stolen truck.
His encounters are a cross-section of poverty-stricken overtly-white America – with suburbia at the end of the rainbow. He is briefly taken in by a handful of ex-servicemen, all suffering to some degree from PTSD, meets an overweight young woman who suffers constant verbal abuse at the hands of the grandfather she cares for, and is taken in by an outwardly friendly but mercurially violent drifter named Silver (Steve Zahn).
The meandering and life-draining journey takes its toll on Charley and the viewer. Lean On Pete goes from hopeful to harrowing and back to hopeful again on a dime. As such, it could have ended at almost any time.
It’s a long journey, and the movie could have been a little less faithful to its source material for the sake of storytelling. But Plummer is so heart-rending at its core, he holds it together regardless.
Lean On Pete. Directed and written by Andrew Haigh. Starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Savigny. Opens Friday, April 13 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.