Review: In ‘Lean on Pete,’ a Boy’s Survival in the Other America

Review: In ‘Lean on Pete,’ a Boy’s Survival in the Other America

At one point in “Lean on Pete,” its adolescent hero, Charley, leans so close into a mirror that you can see — really see — just how excruciatingly young he is. For the most part, the director Andrew Haigh hangs back from Charley (the intensely sympathetic Charlie Plummer), preferring to show him in his world. It is a hard place, petty and mean and sometimes brutal. And the tall, coltish Charley is only 15, which, because he’s so very good at self-preservation, can be easy to forget as he slides deeper into calamity. And, then, it’s always easier to pretend we don’t see the Charleys around us.

A coming-of-age story that unfolds gradually, “Lean on Pete” takes place in what the writer Michael Harrington called “the invisible land” of the poor, a reality too little seen in American movies. Charley and his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), have recently moved from Spokane, Wash., to Portland, Ore., and are living in a cramped house with worn furniture and unpacked boxes. For them, life isn’t shaped by blue skies and unthinking privileges like cellphones or even a real bed for Charley, but by a patchwork of miserly paychecks, rundown rentals and missed meals. Ray is doggedly independent, but no one is looking out for them, either. He also has a habit of disappearing, leaving the fridge to quickly empty.

Mr. Haigh, whose movies include “45 Years” and “Weekend,” makes this world and its contradictions palpable, showing you both the empty cans littering the yard and the care with which Charley unpacks his trophies. Ray has a new job and distraction (Amy Seimetz), but Charley has next to nothing. (His mother ran off long ago, joining the ranks of fiction’s conveniently absent women.) Father and son love each other, although Ray can be terrifyingly careless with Charley. Even when they’re together they seem apart, the distance between them visible in Mr. Haigh’s staging and framing and in Charley’s needy, hesitant glances at his father. (Mr. Plummer’s physical delicacy can look like fragility.)


Trailer: ‘Lean on Pete’

A preview of the film.

By A24 on Publish Date March 26, 2018.


Based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same title, “Lean on Pete” takes off when Charley discovers the local track. It’s there that he meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a vile, cantankerous owner who runs his horses into the ground and who, with his arm in a cast, begrudgingly hires Charley for odd jobs. He takes to the work eagerly, and Mr. Haigh digs into this chapter nicely, catching the light filtering through the stables and adding the textured details that turn movies into lived-in places. More important, the track is where Charley meets a pretty quarter horse named Lean on Pete, whose velvety brown coat and barely audible whinnies become a balm for the lonely teenager.

Quarter horses are sprinters, but there’s not much running and even less winning left in Pete. Del races Pete on the fair circuit, but also hauls him long distances to bleak, makeshift tracks where the horses are separated from onlookers by a length of rope. It’s a long way from the money and putative excitement of thoroughbred racing with its celebrity horses, hall-of-fame jockeys and millions of dollars in bets. Here, the animal abuse is more open and shrugged off, and its consequences are blunt. “Horses aren’t pets,” a jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) cautions Charley, a warning that he ignores and that further unsettles the already fraught atmosphere.

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