I walked into the latest from director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) knowing absolutely nothing about it beyond the title, Lean On Pete. As someone who sees anywhere between 450-475 films per year on average, I can’t express to you how rare it is that I enter a screening of a film being blissfully ignorant of who’s in it, what it’s about, or even who made it. But somehow, that’s what happened walking into this movie, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin (also something I didn’t know going in).
To have no expectations, no idea what’s coming next, and be completely captivated by something this achingly moving is a rare thing in an medium. I treasure those moments and wish I did more to preserve, protect and encourage that experience in my life, but it’s tough when you have to pick and choose which movies you watch and review week after week.
But even if I’d heard some kind of synopsis for Lean on Pete, I’m not sure I would have truly expected the film I got. The film centers on 15-year-old Charley Thompson (a stunning turn by Charlie Plummer, the kidnap victim in last year’s All the Money in the World), who moves to Portland, Oregon with his father Ray (Travis Fimmel), ready to begin their life anew after a rough road getting there.
But Ray almost immediately runs into trouble, forcing Charley to fend for himself. He ends up wandering to the local horse racing track, where he befriends an abrasive owner named Del (Steve Buscemi) and his aging Quarter Horse named Lean on Pete. Charley forms a bond with the horse, and Del pays the kid a few bucks to tend to the stables and care for Lean on Pete between races.
Also on hand is Del’s regular jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), one of the few female jockeys on the circuit, and the three form something resembling a family going from race to race, until it becomes clear that Lean on Pete can no longer race and is likely to be sold for slaughter. But just before the horse is sent off, Charley loads him onto Del’s horse trailer and steals both animal and vehicle, heading to parts unknown.
It’s at this point in the film where I didn’t have a clue where this desperate kid was going with this broken-down horse, but the only thing I cared about was their journey across America, meeting up with characters who would normally be delegated to the background in other films but are pushed to the front and made to interact, interfere with or inspire Charley.
Charley meets a ranch family made up of a couple of military veterans and their nasty-piece-of-work father who takes a great deal of his anger out on his overweight daughter, whom Charley immediately tries to comfort and even tempt to leaving with him (or just leaving, period). Her “Where would I go?” response is chilling. The boy also becomes friendly with a homeless man (Steven Zahn) and his lady friend, but by the end of their short time together, Zahn’s Silver is drunk, beating on Charley and taking what little money he has.
Nearly every new encounter and situation Charley finds himself in does not turn out the way we think it will, and while there is certainly a low-level sense of danger surrounding their impromptu journey, there’s also something righteous and protected about it. Director Haigh isn’t interested in familiar set ups or easy solutions. One encounter ends as another begins, and it all feels organic even if it’s completely random.
I can’t say if I can recall another film I’ve seen quite like Lean On Pete, and on this one, I’m asking you to simply trust me. At its core, it works because a lonely boy sees something of himself in the eyes of a horse that is of no use to anyone. And that kinship and connection forms the basis of one of the finest films I’ve seen all year.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.