Courtesy of A24 films
Charlie Plummer is an actor you may or may not know, he was fairly good in “All The Money In The World” and now he might just steal your heart in “Lean On Pete.” On the surface, this is about one 16 year old’s relationship with a racehorse sentenced to death, think “Lassie” or “Shiloh” but a touch more devastating.
Andrew Haigh’s coming of age odyssey is centered from the perspective of Charley Thompson (Plummer) who discovers a passion he didn’t know existed during a morning run: working for a local horse breeder named Del (played by Steve Buscemi in only the way he can: slick and wiley). He travels to races in nearby towns, learns the tricks of the trade, and becomes engrossed in the sport. It’s the type of job that helps Charley stem away from his shifty home life, where his dad (Travis Fimmel) brings about random women, and can’t keep things consistent. However, whenever he’s an extra $10 to spare, he makes sure to give it to Charley. The scenes with these two sitting at breakfast, conversing about any and everything is nostalgic enough in its own right. Beneath some of the chaos, at least we know his dad loves him.
The main crux of Charley’s saga deals with his bond with a horse named Lean On Pete, an animal past his prime and pushed to lengths and limits far beyond his grasp. What Charley quickly learns is that once a horse stops becoming profitable - they don’t stick around much longer. Learning that Petes days are numbered, he takes his comrade on a cross-country journey to Wyoming, where he believes his Aunt Marge lives (they used to have a good relationship, but his dad tarnished that.) It’s a last resort, and the cinematography by Magnus Jonck does an excellent job at taking us on this ride too.
It’s here where “Lean on Pete” feels like a movie that’s been split into two vastly different films. With characters fading from view, never to be seen again. That’s the difference between a good movie and a great one. “Pete” feels a tad uneven during this stretch of the film as we get sweeping glances of gorgeous landscapes, but it seemed to forget about molding Charley’s relationship with Pete. For starters, there’s no score to accompany this trip, Charley never rides Pete (always opting to walk him instead) and the film just goes through the motions. In fact, you might not feel the emotional impact until a day or two after you see the film.
Some of the encounters include a pair of army bros named Mike (Justin Rain) and Dallas (Lewis Pullman) who offer him a hot meal and place to stay. But even that makes Charley feel a tad unbalanced. Another is Steve Zahn’s Silver - a homeless man living on the streets - and even though he doesn’t show up until the final stretch, the performance leaves a lasting impression. These are smaller pieces of a bigger puzzle with Charley being the glue.
Haigh had already proven his chops with the terrific “45 Years,” but this film is arguably a touch more human-based than his previous efforts. And aside from a mismatched second half “Lean On Pete” is a heartbreaking story, with Plummer delivering a star-making performance. You’d think a story like this wouldn’t be able to offer you any surprises, but Haigh is far too gifted to let normal conventions dictate his story. Because of his fine-tuning, I constantly found myself invested in where the story was headed, and I was rooting for young Charley even though his innocence is drastically put to the test. This isn’t a sappy flick about a pet horse and his owner, but a deeply seeded drama that knows and understands the lengths we go for those we love the most.