Lean on Pete (2018)

13 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve seen gritty, realistic indie films about the issues faced by young people. I’ve seen movies about a boy growing a special bond with an animal, namely a horse. I haven’t seen a film quite like “Lean on Pete,” which is a unique hybrid of both. I could try and describe this film to peers/colleagues, and I wouldn’t come close to being accurate. Yes, “Lean on Pete” features a boy and his horse, trying to get through a world that doesn’t understand them. But there’s far more on this film’s mind than what you might expect.

What “Lean on Pete” ends up being is a sometimes-sweet, sometimes-harrowing, always-emotionally-gripping drama about a good boy trying to find a place to call “home.” In the process of a teenage boy trying to locate the American Dream, we’re obliged to view something that could best be described as “The Grapes of Wrath” mixed with “The 400 Blows.” (As much as I hate to compare one particular film to two other particular films, that’s the best method I could use to try and describe “Lean on Pete” to people. But this is a review, so let’s try and move on.)

The thing that makes writer-director Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” even more special is that it’s not afraid to have it both ways with the audience—it wants to punch them in the gut with gritty realism and harsh truths, but it also wants to touch their hearts and make them feel hopeful and positive too. To do both is always tricky but also very welcome. When the film delves into scenes of deep, dark truth, it makes the lighter moments all the more appreciated.

Our hero is a 15-year-old boy named Charley, played excellently by Charlie Plummer (“King Jack”), who has recently moved to Portland, Oregon from Spokane, Washington, after his ne’er-do-well father (Travis Fimmel) got a new job opportunity. All his friends & football teammates are far away, he has a lot of time all to himself, and his dad spends more time with loose women than his own son, but Charley does his best to deal with it. (One of the most refreshing things about this film is that this kid tries to look at the bright side of things instead of mope and complain all the time about his plight.)

Things look up when he comes across a racetrack, where he’s offered a job from a horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) to become a stablehand and help care for the horses, one of which is an aging quarter-horse named Lean on Pete. Charley enjoys the pay, but he enjoys the company of the horses more. (And of course, Del becomes a father figure to Charley; as crotchety as he may be, he does occasionally show signs of warmth. Not that Charley’s actual father is a bad dad; it’s just that he has a hard enough time taking care of himself, let alone a teenager.) Charley likes Lean on Pete more and more, but as Del and a vet jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) warn him, “Horses aren’t pets.” They see these horses as little more than assets that need to be used as long as possible. When Charley learns what happens to horses when they get too old and used up, he becomes more concerned about Lean on Pete’s wellbeing.

Through unexpected circumstances, which I won’t explain here, Charley runs away, taking Lean on Pete with him on an unpredictable journey. Together, they make their way across the American Desert to see Charley’s loving Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott), whom Charley hasn’t seen since childhood. Along the way, Charley meets many interesting characters who deserve films of their own. Some are willing to help him; others, not so much. But the most intriguing thing about these encounters is they all seem to represent different ideals of the American Dream, particularly the tragic types of those who have tried and failed. What’s even more tragic is that even Charley has to do some of these things in order to survive.

There’s a particularly telling scene in which Charley talks to Lean on Pete about one of the memories he often likes to look back on. It’s a simple time but it meant a whole lot to him. Back in Spokane, one of his football teammates invited him over to his house for breakfast one morning. In a nice house with a nice family and good food and pleasant conversation with good company, Charley felt like he was home. The way he describes the importance of this fond memory makes you realize what it truly is this poor kid truly wants, even if it’s just one more day like that. My heart went out to Charley, and I hoped against hope that he would find what he was looking for. And I can imagine other people who see “Lean on Pete” will have the same wish.

In the end, “Lean on Pete” isn’t about a boy and his horse so much as it is about a boy looking for home. With great acting, excellent cinematography, and a weight to the story that feels “real,” “Lean on Pete” is a very special film that I will call one of the best films of 2018.

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