Lean on Pete, the latest film from A24, is currently slowly rolling out across the country. The film has been adding cities since it debuted on March 30th, but there is still no announcement of when it may release in full. Andrew Haigh both directed and adapted the story from the Willy Vlautin novel of the same name. The movie stars Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World) as Charley Thompson, the nearly 16-year-old son of a single father who struggles to make connections with people, but not with a 5-year-old racehorse named Pete. The movie also features Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, and Steve Zahn as part of the cast of characters moving in and out of Charley’s life.
Lean on Pete was not a traditional movie about a kid and his animal. Instead of a story of adventure, friendship and hope this is more of a nihilistic tale. Charley starts off as a warm, genuine young man; then we see how far desperation can push him. Charley hasn’t had it easy but he knows his dad loves him and he is excited to play football when school starts again in the fall. When food is in short supply at home, a chance meeting introduces Charley to Del (Buscemi), the world of quarter horse racing, and his first job. He learns quickly and becomes friendly with Del and his favorite jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), but these two are far from the ideal role models.
When Pete loses one race too many, a fed up Del decides to sell him to a company in Mexico. Charley, unable to bear letting Pete go, steals the horse, and the two hit the road headed for Charley’s aunt Maggie in Wyoming. Where most films in this genre would be full of fun and campy accidents, Lean on Pete decides to steer into the skid. Instead of hope, we see how far Charley will sink into despair and how frantic that will make him.
This film is almost as much about a forgotten part of America as it is Charley. The film feels timeless. Other than a dropped line and a single cell phone, the story could take place anytime from the 80’s to today. Charley, his dad, Del, and Bonnie live a life stuck in time because of poverty. Charley’s dad knows who he is and what his life is going to be, moving from one factory job to the next. He has accepted that and feels a minimal amount of guilt for not doing better for Charley. It is the hardest on Del, who used to be a bit of a high roller when quarter horse racing was at its peak. Now, with just a fraction of his former wealth, he is forced to travel the fair circuit to stay afloat.
Another forgotten aspect of the film is its setting. When most people think of the pacific northwest, they think of Seattle and maybe downtown Portland, Oregon, not the arid portion of Idaho that covers most of the 1,000 miles that the pair must cover. The film is beautifully shot, showcasing the vast expanse of nothingness that dominates the wilds of Idaho. The area is just densely populated enough to keep the pair from dying, and that is about it.
This movie won’t fill you with the warm fuzzies, like Black Beauty, My Dog Skip or Because of Winn-Dixie, but it will introduce you to many memorable characters. I don’t think this film is high on the re-watch-ability scale, but it will cause you to develop emotions and is worthy of a good conversation. My wife and I spent the 30-minute drive home from the theater, and then some, talking about this movie and how it made us feel. There is a lot to love here, but because Charley has such a hard time connecting with the people in his life, viewers may have a hard time connecting with him. Without that connection, the film can only hit so hard. But if you can honestly empathize with the pair, you will be moved.