Charley (Charlie Plummer) doesn't catch many breaks in Lean On Pete. Living in Oregon with his well-meaning but deadbeat father (Travis Fimmel) after his mother left them, his teenage life lacks direction. Finding work with racehorse owner Del Montgomery (a salt-of-the-earth Steve Buscemi), Charley swiftly forms a bond with Lean On Pete - a horse near the end of his racing career, and thus also near the end of his life. When his dad gets hospitalised and his only real friend is sentenced to the slaughterhouse, Charley takes it upon himself to steal away with “Pete” in tow, making a break for Wyoming - and an aunt who may or may not be there.
Lean On Pete is perhaps best defined by what it isn't. On paper, the story bears the hallmarks of a cliche-ridden tearjerker, a boy-and-his-horse story where the music swells and characters expound on the bond between humans and animals. But Lean On Pete never dwells in sentimentality, despite its many personal and social tragedies. Andrew Haigh's direction is straightforward and untheatrical, observational rather than participatory, and it's all the better for it. Otherwise, Charley's story would be nigh unbearable.
Much of the success in that regard relies on Plummer's performance. As the underweight, perpetually on-the-run Charley, Plummer plays his emotions inwardly. But though his pain doesn’t reach the surface, he doesn't cover it over with stoicism either, simply carrying on out of lack of alternatives. It's a strange mirror-image counterpart to Plummer's performance in All the Money in the World, with his character's social standing inverted and his prison expanded to the whole of the American Midwest.
It’ll be interesting to see reactions to this film from horse lovers, as much of the film revolves around how various characters see Pete. Del and his jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) see horses as the means to an income, not as pets - a key sticking point between them and their young hired hand. Horse racing is a world where an animal that can't run isn't worth keeping alive, and though the film's characters try to avoid admitting it outright, it's a business with blood on its hands. Against that, Charley's affection for Pete plays as almost naive optimism.
But though Charley certainly considers Pete a friend, often talking to him as a trusted confidant, it's a one-way relationship. Pete doesn't display any anthropomorphised love in return; realistically, he's kidnapped by Charley, whose lack of plan for him borders on unwitting animal abuse. The emphasis is always on Charley's story; the film even goes so far as to leave Pete behind in its third act, in what's certainly its most surprising turn. This is a horse movie where the horse is just a horse - and that’s remarkably refreshing.
Another way Lean On Pete surprises is in its weighty social realism. Charley starts off poor, celebrating when his first paycheque nets him a chance to buy groceries, and only gets poorer from there, his sense of self-worth dropping along with his resources. As his journey grows ever more desperate, he siphons gasoline, steals food, and breaks into houses to use amenities - but at no point does the film judge him for falling victim to financial and familial instability. Charley is, for most of the film, homeless - hitting his nadir in a violent confrontation with another homeless man (Steve Zahn). It’s a compelling picture of the “economic anxiety” major newspapers are so fond of profiling - small rural towns full of veterans and labourers left behind by a changing world, forgotten by an uncaring government, and kept in their place by the inertia of capitalism.
As a result of its American heartland setting, Lean On Pete is also a very white movie. Its only people of colour are an unnamed Samoan man who beats up Charley's father, and the Mexicans Charley works with later on, described by one character as "the only people who seem to get jobs." That's not to say Lean On Pete is a racist movie; it's merely set in a particularly white-normative region of a racist country. When you consider that Haigh is British, the film takes on an intriguing dimension of cultural criticism. Haigh's fascination for that weird sector of the country is palpable in every one of the film's road-movie vignettes.
Even for those who find it difficult to connect with “horse movies,” there's a lot worthwhile in Lean On Pete. Despite being the title character, the horse is almost secondary to the real story: that of a teenager in search of a sense of belonging. Pete represents just another attempt by Charley to find that belonging. Once that realisation hits, Lean On Pete becomes a whole lot more powerful.