SXSW Film Review – Lean on Pete
Lean on Pete
Lean on Pete is film distributor A24’s latest release, and it also screened at SXSW 2018. The film is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin with the script written and directed by Andrew Haigh. The story revolves around Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), a teenager living with his dad, Ray (Travis Fimmel), and they have recently moved Portland, Oregon. Ray doesn’t provide much of a life for Charley. Their house is small, little to no furniture, and not much food either. Charley is left alone most of the time, and his hobby of running leads him to discover a horse track near their house. It is on one of these treks to the track that Charley meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a racehorse trainer who boards horses at the track. Charley offers his assistance to Del, and a working and friendly relationship develops between them. It is after losing his father, and having no mother to speak of, that Charley loses his way and takes off with Del’s horse Lean on Pete to find his long-lost aunt.
Considering the film’s title is Lean on Pete, the assumed focus would be on the horse and Charley, but that is only part of the story. This film is much more a voyage for Charley, one that I hope no one has to duplicate. Life has not been too kind to him, but he has made due with what he has. Charley is making the most of his life in a new town, with an absentee father and no friends. Finding Del and Lean on Pete are a catalyst to happier times for Charley. One would not think an older, grizzled horse trainer with very little to speak of would take an interest in the well-being of a boy, but this does happen. Charley is grateful for the job and lessons Del teaches him. He even gets to meet a female jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), with whom he bonds with as well.
On the periphery of Charley’s job as Del’s helper, Charley is somewhat aware of what selling a horse to Mexico means. He is told time and time again that Lean on Pete is just a horse and don’t get attached. Considering he has very little in his life, it is no surprise that Charley latches on to the horse. Lean on Pete is not doing so well at the track, and when it becomes time to sell him to Mexico, Charley takes matters into his own hands considering he has nothing to lose anymore.
The film is essentially two parts with the first being Charley’s introduction to horses and Del, and the second is when Charley and Lean on Pete leave Del and everything behind. The two parts are separated by the death of Charley’s father. Rather than end up in foster care, he somehow thwarts the system and hides his circumstances from Del. The jettison to Charley putting all his faith and feelings into Lean on Pete is his father’s death. The horse becomes a friend and listener, one that he badly needs, and when the horse’s life is threatened, Charley is desperate not to lose something else.
What Charley does in his desperation is amazing. His long-lost aunt is the only thing that he has now, and rather than trust any authorities to find her; he takes it upon himself to walk to her last known whereabouts. Along the way, he meets different groups of people, some good and some bad. None seem to do what is right, but they try to help Charley how they can.
This film is Charlie Plummer’s completely and a testament to what a talented, young actor he is. It would not be what it is without Plummer’s portrayal of Charley. He plays a lost boy (with both meanings) well, and the progression of his character’s despair hits you in the gut. The moments of kindness from people he meets allows Plummer to show what a happy Charley will look like in these moments. Given the lengths he went through to play a tortured, young man, this actor should have a bright future ahead of him.
Lean on Pete is not exactly the film that I thought it would be. It is less about the Charley and the horse than it is about Charlie’s journey to find his family. This journey also means that he is walking towards the possibility of being loved and safe and he believes his effort is worth that. While the ending is not a sugar-coated, expected Hollywood ending, it is a fitting and realistic conclusion to Charley’s story. Lean on Pete is an astonishing film about a lost teen trying to find where he belongs.