Lean on Pete (2018)
Written & Directed by Andrew Haigh
Charley is a boy with a rough, uncertain life. His mother ran out on him and his Dad when Charley was young, and now Dad shuffles them around from place to place, never staying long enough to plant any roots. Charley loved when they lived with Aunt Margy, but there was an argument and another move. Now the duo has settled in Portland where Dad is fooling around with a married woman and failing to keep food in the house. Sixteen-year-old Charley discovers a horse racing track nearby and gets a job helping Del with his racehorses. Charley feels an instant bond towards Lean on Pete, an aging quarterhorse whom Del seems eager to get rid of. As the boy and his horse’s relationship grows, and life at home falls apart, Charley feels an urge to run.
This was not the movie I was expecting. From the buzz, I’d heard I thought it would be a reasonably serviceable drama about a young adult and their relationship with an animal. It was so much darker and bleaker than that. Yes, there is somewhat of an uncertain happy ending at the film’s conclusion, but overall Lean on Pete is a character study of a young man put through the wringer by life. I loved it. I don’t think I have seen a picture in a long time that so unflinchingly depicts the descent into homelessness that a young person can encounter. Charley tries to argue that he isn’t to a fellow transient in a shelter, who replies with a chuckle and lets Charley know, “Sorry to break it to you kid…”
Critic Colin Covert (Minneapolis Star Tribune) dubbed the movie, “The 400 Blows if it was set in the poorer sections of the Pacific Northwest” and that is not an overstatement. Charley is a sort of rural Antoine Doinel, he’s quiet and following his dad’s lead while always feeling that tug to escape. Del provides a respite by taking Charley around the area for second-tier quarterhorse racing. Charley expresses the sentiment of wanting to travel this circuit for living with his horses one day, Del admonishes by saying he once loved horses, but now when he sees one, he wants to kill himself. Not as dour is Bonnie, a jockey and friend of Del’s who shares her stories of chronic injuries, crushed multiple times by a horse that threw her in the starting gate.
Around the halfway mark of the film is when the catalyst occurs, the event that sends Charley and Del far from home. Charley is pushed to commit crimes: stealing a truck, dining and dashing, breaking into a suburban home, and finally physically striking someone who’s taken his money. As if all of this isn’t terrible enough the third act kicks off with a gut-wrenching event that left me reeling, not knowing how Charley was going to recover from it. There’s an excellent debate to be had if Charley ever does or will recover from what he goes through on this odyssey to Wyoming and the promise of Aunt Margy.
Charley has never really experienced love, except for that one short time with Aunt Margy. She truly loved him, and then they had to go away. So, when Charley meets Pete, a horse considered valueless, he wants to repay that love. Charley begins to see the beauty in Pete, old but still strong, full of opinions and not easily tamed. He wants to rescue Pete in the same way he needs someone to save him. No one’s coming for Pete, so Charley takes it upon himself without ever asking if anyone is coming for Charley. So often the rural corners of our nation are portrayed as the warm, moral centers, the “Heartland.” Director Haigh has no qualms pointing out how stark and lonely the landscape and its people can be, just as devastating as any urban nightmare conjured up. Charley happens upon a house occupied by two veterans returned from Iraq. They discuss what they saw over beers, sharing stories of dismemberments and humans turned into paint by bombs, chuckling about it.
Del is not the wise sage who will save Charley with inspiring words. Charley’s dad isn’t going to come around and try to do better. Even Aunt Margy is only really ever seen through the young man’s memories of her. Charley is a million kids who, like Pete, are bare-ribbed, shaking, and hunger nearly every day of their lives. Yes, strangers can be kind, but not all. Even worse are the people you love and trust who choose to abuse that and harm you. Charlie Plummer, who plays the protagonist, is phenomenal in a quiet, aching performance. You feel him breaking yet at the same time holding things together to walk just a little further, make it a bit closer to his destination. In the end, he gets there, but I’m not so sure what his future will be.