“Lean on Pete” Boy and Horse Amos Lassen
Charley Thompson wants a home, food on the table and a high school he can
attend for more than part of the year. He is the son of a single father working
in warehouses across the Pacific Northwest making stability is hard to find.
Hoping for a new start, Charley and his father move to Portland, Oregon where
Charley takes a summer job with a washed-up horse trainer and befriends a
failing racehorse named Lean on Pete.
The story gets lost in the vastness of
the landscapes, buffeting between genres and sometimes uncertain of what it
wants to be. Yet, Haigh uses sincere melancholy that elevates “Lean on Pete” above
its faults, aided by a wonderful performance from Charlie Plummer.
Plummer is Charley, a 15 year old who
speaks so softly that his words barely leave his body. His life is both
familiar and original for a film like this and the genuinely caring relationship between
Charley and his single father (Travis Fimmel) is a rarity, and one that is very
comforting to watch. It’s a refreshingly upbeat look at the working class before
Charley gets a job at a racing track and Haigh pivots to a touching
The film becomes an unfocused but powerful road movie
after Charley gets some tragic family news and runs away with the horse, Pete.
It’s a bold move, as it completely leaves behind two excellent performances
from Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny, the trainer and jockey who own Pete. It’s
not an entirely successful gamble, but there are still some superb scenes in
this final third, like a chance encounter with two kind-hearted, horse-loving
veterans in the desert and a terrifying moment in which Pete tries to bolt
after being spooked.
The title comes from the aging racehorse. It pans out as a great character study of people and horses, but it doesn’t work as a children’s picture–it’s too haunting and downbeat. British filmmaker Andrew Haigh is writer and director of this emotionally moving unconventional arthouse poor boy meets poor horse drama that never becomes sentimental and ends in gloom.
When Charlie and his dad move to Portland, they find the nearby third-rate local racetrack where he meets cranky but kind horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), who offers Charley part-time work cleaning the stables. At the job he learns a lot about caring for horses, while meeting others at the track he can relate to like the psychologically wounded jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). Soon he forms a bond with the 5-year-old quarter horse Lean on Pete and also a friendship with the jockey. As time passes, he sees the ugly side of the business, of how the horses become expendable when they can’t race any more, like Lean on Pete, and can be sold for horse meat in Mexico. This is too much for the kid, who thinks of the horse as a kindred spirit and thinks they both can escape from their destiny by going someplace else.
This is not a tearjerker
because of the film’s gritty humor, prevailing horse sense and the way it keeps
itself sparse. It’s a s coming-of-age drama, that is good at observing nature,
people and animals in a lyrical way. It takes a familiar story and puts a
different face on it and gets terrific performances from Pete, Charley and from
a wonderfully complex character played by Buscemi. There’s also a catchy
performance by Steve Zahn that comes in the second part.