At its simplest, “Lean on Pete” is about a boy and his horse. Writer-director Andrew Haigh, adapting a novel by Willy Vlautin, has a principled reticence that serves the story well. I was afraid at first that I would be watching a sobfest. I needn’t have worried. Nothing very grand is being attempted here, but there’s a core of feeling to what we are witnessing that keeps the sentimentality in check.
Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) has recently relocated with his itinerant single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), to Portland, Ore. It’s summer break from high school, and Charley, wanting to do more than mope about, begins to frequent the local quarter horse track. A scruffy trainer and owner, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), gives the boy part-time work cleaning the stable and transport trailer where Del houses his horses, and pretty soon Charley has bonded with Lean on Pete, a 5-year-old quarter horse who has seen better days (and even those days were none too good).
Haigh initially appears to be priming us for a generic fable about a lonely boy who befriends a gruff but kindly father figure, discovers his equine soul mate, and wins the racing sweepstakes. Thankfully, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Del may harbor a grudging sympathy for the boy, but he’s also a cheater who, with his accomplice and jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), juices his horses with “vitamins.” When the horses stop winning, they get unceremoniously transported to Mexico – i.e., they get sold for horse meat.
This is the predicament that Charley and Pete find themselves in. When a violent turn of events renders Charley essentially homeless, he attempts to rescue both Pete and himself by taking to the road. He hopes to find his way to Wyoming, where a fondly remembered aunt lives whom he has not been in touch with for years.
Haigh is British, and his outsider’s eye probably accounts in part for the film’s lyrically askew vision of working-class fringes – the trailer homes, run-down fairgrounds, and homeless encampments. Once Charley and Pete hit the road, the vistas open up, and yet the effect is more stifling than expansive. In the vast countryside, the pair seem closed in by their aloneness, and their serial misadventures only emphasize their vulnerability. Charley continually seeks to reassure Pete by saying to him, “Don’t worry; it will be OK,” but he could just as well be talking to himself.
Pete is rather knobby and distracted-looking, and Haigh doesn’t attempt to frame him in a heroic light. In classics like “The Black Stallion” or “National Velvet,” horse and rider are spiritually aligned. “Lean on Pete” is far more modest. The movie is really about Charley and his attempt to hold on to his youth even as it is being rudely wrested from him by the rough circumstances of his life. His road trip is a series of comeuppances, starting with his disillusionment with Del and extending to an interlude with some knockabout war veterans and then with a homeless man (Steve Zahn), who is as kindly when sober as he is enraged when drunk.
Plummer made a sharp impression last year as John Paul Getty III in the misbegotten “All the Money in the World,” and, in a very different vein, he impresses here again. He’s playing a kid who at first seems gangly and awkward, but he has a wariness that allows him to persevere. He’s deceptively resilient.
Buscemi’s performance is likewise marvelous. In his scenes with Charley, there’s a lifetime of scrounging and connivance reflected in Del’s gimlet eyes. (Buscemi can also be seen, as Nikita Khrushchev, no less, in the recent terrific political satire “The Death of Stalin.” What a versatile actor he is!)
Haigh, whose previous films include the touching gay romance “Weekend” and the resonant marital drama “45 Years,” works in the same intuitive, humanist tradition as Kelly Reichardt, the director of such films as “Certain Women” and “Night Moves.” “Wendy and Lucy,” her 2008 movie about a young woman and her dog, set partially in the outskirts of Oregon, probably influenced “Lean on Pete.” Like Reichardt’s films, Haigh’s sometimes drift off into a desultory nothingness, but he has a real feeling for people – not to mention horses. At his best, he can strike more emotional notes from silence than most directors can with a full chorus of sound. Grade: B+ (Rated R for language and brief violence.)