Lean on Pete, directed by Andrew Haigh and based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, is a melancholy story about an adolescent boy named Charley Thompson. Played by Charlie Plummer, Charley works at a stable and grows attached to a horse named Lean on Pete.


Charley begins the film as a 15-year-old boy leading an unceremonious life living with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel). Ray is separated from and makes little contact with his ex-wife (meaning Charley is effectively growing up without a mother), filling in that void with women he meets, the latest being a married woman. Charley also stumbles upon the gruff Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi) while out on a jog. Needing help maintaining his business, he hires Charley on the spot and gradually warms up to the boy. Charley, however, begins growing attached to the aging Lean on Pete, a race horse incapable of adequately competing with his peers.


Ray is hospitalized after a brutal attack by his girlfriend’s husband, encouraging Charley — now their sole source of income — to keep working while he recovers. Unfortunately, an infection claims Ray’s life, leaving Charley without a guardian. Pete’s time at Del’s ranch, meanwhile, is nearing its end. Charley is tasked with fetching Del’s truck so they can sell Pete to a Mexican slaughterhouse, but he instead drives off with the horse, who’s now his only companion. His plan is to travel to Wyoming, where his mother lives. While traveling together, Charley talks to Pete, providing exposition about his history while demonstrating how lonely he is. The poor kid grows more emotionally tired as he progresses, eventually leading him to his destination and an appropriately measured conclusion.  


Across his journey, Charley does some acting out, including walking out of a diner without paying, breaking into someone’s house and the obvious act of stealing his boss’s truck and horse. Yet it’s impossible not to root for the boy, thanks largely to Plummer’s earnest performance. Plummer grants his character a sympathetic air in his naivety and innocence and delivers heart-wrenchingly frailty whenever tragedy strikes Charley. This isn’t Plummer’s first role in a film, and I hope it isn’t his last. Of course, the rest of the actors did a stellar job as well.

The memorability of Charley’s search for solidity also benefits from its backdrop, a social landscape devoid of glamor or wealth. Charley starts off the movie in school and runs for exercise, but it’s clear his mundane environment has little to offer him beyond his dead end job. Lean on Pete is seemingly set during the 90s — I say seemingly because most of its iconography, save for one scene with a widescreen television and a contemporary gaming console, is rooted in that era — and the ordinary people and surroundings he passes through accentuates Charley’s baggage and mindset.

While the Blu-ray suffers from a dearth of special features, the “Searching for Home: Making Lean on Pete” feature is over 27 minutes, detailing the production of the film. Haigh and Vlautin both talk about how their experiences informed their work, whereas the actors talk about their roles and how their characters fit within their world. Haigh and Plummer both talk about the unique challenges in acting alongside a trained horse too. It’s well worth a watch.

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