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Lean on Pete

I was in 5th grade and my parents’ friends set me up on a date with this blonde girl from Indiana, that was spending the summer in San Diego. We went to see The Black Stallion. I just kept hoping I wouldn’t cry watching a boy and his horse. I’m in my late 40s now, and watching this story about a boy and a horse, I was sitting next to my wife…hoping I wouldn’t cry. I did, and she and I spent the next few days talking about this haunting film and thinking about the boy. He was played by Charlie Plummer (the kidnapped grandson in All the Money in the World), who reminded me of River Phoenix.

He’s living in the Pacific Northwest with his father, who doesn’t have enough time or money for the boy. He’d rather spend his time chasing women (even if they’re married), although in one of many touches I loved about this film…you can tell the father does love his kid. He’s just an idiot, and sometimes idiots in this world are raising children.

Director Andrew Haigh (who disappointed me with 45 Years a few years ago) is British, and you wouldn’t know that from how well he capture the gorgeous vistas and sometimes lets the silence speak volumes. Although I didn’t think the movie warranted a two hour run time, the stillness in pace worked nicely many times.

Charley (Charlie Plummer) has just moved with his dad (Travis Fimmel) to Portland. They’re poor, but the situation isn’t as dire as it could be. Sometimes one of dad’s floozies will make them breakfast. Other times, pop gives his kid a twenty for food.

Charley does a lot of jogging, and when he passes a stable of horses, he becomes enamored. He asks Del (the always terrific Steve Buscemi) if he needs any help. Since this small-time racehorse owner has a broken arm, he pays him a bit to help him load a horse on a truck. Charley pesters him for more work, and Del takes a liking to his work ethic. Again, in one of the fine small touches by the director, Del is disgusted by the boy’s table manners. You start to think perhaps Charley has a new father figure. In this movie, not all the characters are either good or bad. And the down-on-their-luck traits aren’t as depressing as say…The Florida Project. So many moments in this movie are a downer, but then you’re uplifted by the kindness some stranger may show the boy.

Lean on Pete is the name of one of the horses Del is running into the ground, trying to make as much as he can off him before selling him to a glue factor in Mexico. Del has little concern for the health of the horse. Charley does.

It’s bizarre to realize that there are small race tracks in remote towns where people bet on the ponies. I just thought it was places like Del Mar, Churchill Downs, and Belmont Park. I didn’t realize in some small Oregon town, you had a handful of people involved in such pursuits.

One of those people is a female jockey, played by Chloe Sevigny. It was nice to see her, a co-star with Buscemi in the criminally underrated Trees Lounge. Some of the things she tells Charley about not becoming attached to the horse as if it were a pet…is both good advice and heartbreaking. That’s because we can see this boy cares about Lean on Pete.

Not much more of the plot can be told without spoilers, but you’ll be intrigued in the direction this story goes. The naivete, but also self reliance of Charley is commendable.

I felt the picture worked better in the first half, when we’re at the racetrack and meeting a lot of these small-time losers who talk like big shots. When it becomes a road trip picture, less so. Yet even then, it has interesting detours. At one point, Charley meets a homeless couple. The guy is played by Steve Zahn, going against type. That made me feel a lot more sympathy for the homeless and poor people than anything those losers in The Florida Project did (side note: I need to stop harping on that overrated, Oscar nominated film).

It was refreshing that this was a bitter-sweet coming-of-age story instead of a cheesy teen melodrama with horses. It doesn’t always have the strongest plot, and that’s due to its length. It really didn’t need to be this long, and I’m afraid the second half may be too much of a downer for some.

The first half reminded me of The Champ (Jon Voight). A loving dad that drinks, horses, no mom in the picture.

This is a situation where I now want to seek out the Willy Vlautin novel this is based on. It’s probably a lovely story to read, and I’m almost certain it will work better in book form.

Yet it’s hard to fault a movie with such great performances, cinematography, and gut punches of emotion.

Bring Kleenex.

3 stars out of 5.