The bond between a teen with a troubled family background and a failed racehorse is the jumping off point for the real concern of Lean On Pete – displaced American youth. An absorbing and unusual film featuring a promising new performer in Charlie Plummer.
Lean on Pete is the name of a plodder of a racehorse with whom lead character Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teen from a fragmented family, forms a close bond. However, this is not a sentimental boy-and-horse movie in the usual Hollywood mould. Rather, it is another in a succession of recent films personalising the tragic phenomenon of displaced American youth.
Charley has had more than his fair share of hard knocks in his short life. Deserted in early childhood by his mother, he lives with his good-natured but irresponsible warehouse worker father (Travis Fimmel). They have just moved from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. At a loose end during the summer break, Charley scores a holiday job working for battling racehorse trainer Del (a wizened up Steve Buscemi), who travels about the countryside eking a living from the small race circuit.
When Charley takes a shine to the nearly spent Lean On Pete, Del’s jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) warns him that there is no room for sentiment in the game they’re in. Del is hard-nosed about his horses; he races them into the ground, and when their earning days are over dispatches them to a knackery in Mexico. This is soon to be Lean On Pete’s fate.
Left alone and desperate when family tragedy strikes, Charley absconds with his equine companion. As they head off across the prairies on foot, Charley talks constantly to the horse, reminiscing about his earlier life. Thus, from this point Lean On Pete functions primarily as an exposition and characterisation device. We learn of Charley’s past, and of his fondness for the aunt who looked after him for a time. She is living in Missouri, two states away, the safe home at the end of what turns out to be a perilous journey through Badlands inhabited by weirdos, drunks and those displaced from greater society by choice or circumstance.
The prairies through which Charley wanders, mythologised and romanticised in countless westerns as the site of an heroic and ultimately triumphant struggle to civilise a wild and lawless land, are now once again full of threat. But it’s a nameless and nondescript town where the poor kid, now horseless, faces his greatest danger – ironically, from the justice system and the possibility of a ruined life behind bars, simply through fighting for self-preservation.
Brit director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) paints a grim and miserable picture of the trajectory of decent kids like Charley who through no fault of their own find themselves alone and fighting for survival in an impoverished world of dog eat dog. There is an unmistakable implication that any minor who loses the security of family and is forced to negotiate the pitfalls that await an innocent at the bottom end of American society can end up desolate and vulnerable like Charley.
Lean On Pete is an absorbing and unusual film that is certainly worth a look, although it doesn’t have the emotional impact you might expect. Perhaps Haigh is too tough-minded, too determinedly avoiding of sentiment (until the end, at least). Whatever, no blame can be levelled at charismatic young actor Charlie Plummer, who does a fine job of the lead role, playing his subdued, sensitive and endearing character with a quiet, unassuming conviction. A talent to watch.
Movie Website: https://a24films.com/films/lean-on-pete
Lean On Pete screening dates (2017-18 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
UWA Somerville: 19 Feb-25 Feb 2018, 8pm
ECU Joondalup Pines: 27 Feb-4 Mar 2018, 8pm
For complete list of film reviews published on this site see Movie Review Archives