The boy-and-his-horse story of “Lean on Pete” sounds like family fare but it is anything but. The cast should be the first clue. Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn, all edgy 90s indie virtuosos, are the above-the-title stars, hinting that this isn’t going to be another “National Velvet” remake.
At the beginning of the story fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and his single father Ray (Travis Fimmel) are starting their lives over in Portland, Oregon. Charley’s mom went out for cigarettes years ago and never came back. Since then father and son and moved around the country, Ray chasing work, Charley trying to find a place to fit in. They are more like friends than father and son. Ray offers up dubious fatherly advice—“The best women have all been waitresses at some point.”—and finds a new women in every new town.
To pass the time Charley gets a job tending to an aging Quarter Horse named Lean On Pete. Working for crusty old horse trader Del Montgomery (Buscemi) Charley finds purpose and despite the warnings of jockey Bonnie (Sevigny) not to get emotionally involved with the horse—“Don’t think of them as pets,” she says.—the teenager coddles the horse even as it becomes clear Pete isn’t going to win anymore races.
When Del decides to get rid of Pete, to “send him to Mexico”—i.e.: the glue factory— Charley makes off with the horse, embarking on a road trip in search of a better life for both of them.
There are many good messages here for kids about resilience and loyalty but again let me remind you this isn’t a kid’s movie. Del’s foul language and a scene where Charley beats a homeless man with a tire iron rule that out. What we’re left with is a story that feels like it was written for a young adult audience but made by someone weaned on mid-period Wim Wenders. Tonally it feels as though it has one hoof in YA, the other in more adult fare.
Tonality aside, the first hour works very well. Plummer is magnetic, quietly creating the character of a desperate young man who does bad things for mostly the right reasons. His scenes with Buscemi and Sevigny sparkle with a gruff warmth, setting up the lesson in resilience that dominates the second half. As Charley sets off into America’s hinterland Bonnie’s statement of fact, “There’s only so many times you can fall down, right?,” is proven wrong time after time. It’s a road trip of misery that sees Charley survive in very trying circumstances. Paced a little too leisurely in its second hour the road trip section, despite the dramatic events portrayed, is far less interesting than the character work of the first hour.
“Lean on Pete” is an effective portrait of a lonely boy but ultimately simply becomes a laundry list of Charley’s bad decisions.