The sound of the sprinklers cha-chinging. A family barbecue on a warm summer’s day. The dog running through the yard, lapping the cool drops of water. A mother and father hold each other as their son races after the dog. This is not Charley’s life. Charley is poor. Charley is scared. He’s alone.
Lean on Pete is an odyssey; exploring a teenage boy, while he copes with the flawed adults around him, seeking solitude in a horse nearing the end of its usefulness.
Charley has just moved from Spokane to Portland, during the summer, with little to do but run. While running, he finds a racetrack. There, he meets Del (Steve Buscemi) and Lean on Pete- a quarter horse that sprints short distances. Based purely on the synopsis, the film is as cornball as cornball can get. How many films follow a boy’s journey with an animal?
Yet, Lean on Pete is something different. At times, something darker, something truthful.
In fact, much of the film is an examination of failed patriarchy. The male figures in Charley’s life are all imperfect. His father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), is a good ole’ boy. He hasn’t seen a woman he couldn’t bang, and a scrap he couldn’t avoid. Often short on money, and longer on excuses. Ray at his core is a good father, but he’s still ill-equipped to provide a stable life for his teenage son. Charley’s boss, Del, is “well meaning,” but is emblematic of the worst in horse racing culture. A man who’s been hardened by failure, he runs his horses into the ground, sending them away when they lose their usefulness. Del’s a system guy (no pun intended), trying to survive the best way he can.
Nevertheless, it’s not these male ‘role-models’ Charley looks up to. In fact, it’s Margy (Alison Elliot), a woman his father used to date, who he seeks solace and shelter from in his cross-country trek. There’s also, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), an aging jockey still trying to keep the dream alive because she has nothing else.
But most of all, every one of these characters (with the exception of Martha): Charley, Ray, Del, and Bonnie are stuck. Stuck on the fringes of an existence that offers them very little else. Ray will never stop womanizing. Del and Bonnie only know horses. And Charley, Charley is entrapped by the fractured adults around him.
His only friend is Pete. As his “family” life crumbles around him, he stays in the stalls next to Pete. And when he hears that “his” beloved horse will be taken away, he hijacks him.
Director Andrew Haigh went into immaculate detail with his research, consulting the author of Lean on Pete, Willy Vlautin, and taking the same cross-country trip as Charley. He also demonstrates the loneliness of Charley, as Haigh often has large wide shots of desert landscape with Charley and Pete as insignificant specks. Haigh uses these shots to create a postcard like canvas of the American West, akin to Paris, Texas. Also, the lighting in the film is wonderful. As Charley becomes closer to Pete, they both become enveloped in a light brown shade, making horse and boy one in color.
The steady diet of gorgeous shots is coupled by not only fantastic performances from the supporting cast, but also Charlie Plummer (who carries the film). Prior to Lean on Pete, I had seen Plummer in All the Money in the World. And quite honestly, he didn’t impress me. He did a fine job as the kidnapped John Paul Getty III, but he really emerges here, especially in the desert scenes. As him and Pete travel together, they set the emotional balance of the film. Plummer creates a connection with that animal, and by doing so, creates the same with us.
And as the film enters into its final third, Plummer is steady and brilliant demonstrating not only Charley’s growth, but also how his naivety becomes mixed with darkness as he meets two former soldiers struggling with post-war reality, a girl verbally abused due to her weight, and a robbing drunk. In the process, Charley is asked to mature, but in the end, he just wants to be a kid. He wants the family. The dog. The nice house. But most of all, he wants what any child living in poverty wants, he wants normalcy.
And anyone who has lived through poverty, who has been through homelessness, rarely knowing where the next meal or bed will come from, knows Charley’s plight. Knows the helplessness that comes from seeing better, but not knowing how to reach it. In fact, there’s a moment during the desert sequence where Charley remembers a football teammate. He remembers going over to the teammate’s home, his immaculate and clean home. And now, not wanting to tell the friend where he is: knowing that the teammate probably doesn’t remember him, but hoping that if he does remember him, the teammate thinks of that day and not who he is now.
That moment, that crushingly truthful memory, sums up Charley: proud, scared, and alone, and describes what he’s always lacked in life, a home.