Lean on Pete opens at the Roxy Fri., May 11.

On the outside, Lean on Pete looks like a folksy family drama about an adolescent boy and his love for a horse. That’s not an inaccurate description, per se; it just belies the story’s darkest undercurrents. Beware a placid movie trailer that cascades into a montage of characters smiling. More often than not, this is the studio trying to obscure from you what might otherwise be a prohibitively sad story. If I had bought the saccharine pitch about a boy and his horse I’d have steered clear, but lucky for us I am hardwired to sniff out doom. Wait a minute, I said. Why is this horse movie rated R? I suspected that the picture held sordid secrets, and I was not disappointed.

Lean on Pete comes to us from writer and director Andrew Haigh, based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel. Haigh’s previous work includes the critically acclaimed 45 Years (unseen by me, but this one also looks like a bummer). Charlie Plummer stars as Charley, a good looking, 15-year-old white kid who used to live in Spokane, but has since moved with his screw-up father (Travis Fimmel) to Oregon where they live in filth and squalor. We are a far piece from the Portland I know, replete with food trucks and massage therapists. Along the city’s rural outskirts, Charley comes across a horse track and gets that glassy-eyed look you find in a character who’s just been confronted with his destiny.

Lean on Pete

Charlie Plummer stars in Lean on Pete.

Before long, Charley’s mixed up with Del (Steve Buscemi), a man who used to like horses but has since been hardened by the ins and outs of the cutthroat business of competitive racing. Charley starts to work for Del and his pretty, kind jockey friend Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). She warns him, “Don’t get attached to the horses. They’re not pets.” But the movie isn’t called, Don’t Lean on Pete. Of course Charley will befriend the titular horse, see himself in all the ways the animal has been put upon, used and discarded by adults, and a tender and complicated friendship will ensue. Pete wins races until his foot gives out and he quits winning. From there, it’s time to be shipped off to the glue factory in Mexico. Unless…

If all this sounds like a familiar enough trope to you, you’re not wrong so much as missing the point. Here I am forced to evoke the words of my unwitting mentor Roger Ebert when he said, “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about what it’s about.” Charley’s story moves me precisely because we are shown it with such a vicious, plain and almost unbearable lack of sentiment. In a movie such as this, you would expect Pete to work his charm on us. Give us something cute or extraordinary to hang our sympathies on: Have the horse nuzzle Charley with a knowing tenderness at just the right moment, or maybe he knows simple math with the stomping of his foot or can talk sort of? At the end of the day, Pete is just a regular, degular horse, and any value Charley (or we, the audience) place on him is merely a projection of our pitiful hope.

Finally, I admire the picture for its linear, elegant and unmerciful unfolding of events. We watch how Charley’s luck turns from good to bad to worse and maybe back again. (You’ll get no promises from me.) At its heart, this is a story about wounded people stuck in unhappy lives and all the many and terrible ways they try and fail and try again to make do.

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