Lean on Pete is a sincere and taut coming-of-age story about a boy and his horse. It digs right into the fabric of gritty emotional storytelling. We are introduced to Charley (Charlie Plummer), who has been relocated all his life, raised by a single father, and unable to have the only thing he wants: the stability of a fixed home where he can stay long enough to join a sports team.
This film is a prime example of how to show, not tell, in movies. We know Charley’s just come from Spokane, Washington—he wears a shirt from his former high school. And now he’s in Portland, Oregon, we know, because he gets a job working for a disgruntled Del (Steve Buscemi) at the Portland Downs, working with some short-sprint race horses.
Charley is a short sprinter himself. That’s our introduction and our closing; he’s a runner. That’s the characterization we’re given. He’s moved so often he’s had no choice but to run. When he finds a kinship with the short distance running horse Lean on Pete, we’re not surprised then. They’re the same, and they reflect the same values in each other. Pete’s nearing the end of his sprinting career and is going to be sent to “Mexico” when he’s done with the racing. Charley must take matters into his own hands and takes off with the horse to see if either of them can find anything like permanence and a sense of having a home.
On their journey from the Northwest to Wyoming, everyone has one question for Charley: “Why?” There’s not a clear answer, except that it must be done. This is the driving philosophical question though: why, Charley? There’s nowhere left to go now. Charley’s father is gone, and his extended family now consists of only a horse. Their bond is that of best friends. Charley tells Pete everything. It’s in these gorgeous monologues spanning against the lovely backdrop of the American West that true growth and connection happens.
Plummer is an emerging talent. His recent work’s proven he has convincing acting chops, and this ought to be his real breakthrough. The film centralizes its frame on his character through every shot. In that way, it carries the semblance of its adapted book. We are always next to the character and inside his head. It plays out like a direct reading experience. Tonally it lingers inside John Steinbeck territory (Travels with Charley or otherwise); it is a significant American movie from a British director.
Lean on Pete is a confident work for director Andrew Haigh. It has all the accomplishment of his prior success with 45 Years. We have a great central performance to move every scene and an unlikely story of companionship and loss to motivate big, deep feelings. Lean on Pete resounds wonderfully with the classic Churchill quote: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”