Lean on Pete

A dramatic animal movie, but not for young children

By Matthew Kauffman Smith

Kids and animals. That’s a combination that moviemakers and advertisers alike gravitate to time and again. Cute sells. Flipper was the first movie I saw, and The Black Stallion might have been my second. Benji may have been my third. Even before I became a father, I enjoyed Because of Winn-Dixie and My Dog Skip. As a father, I have endured/enjoyed my share of animal movies.

 Lean on Pete theatrical release poster Lean on Pete is the latest movie about a human and animal bond, but it elevates the narrative to a whole new level. The new movie from writer/director Andrew Haigh (45 Years), allows little room for being cute and nostalgic. The slow-building drama relies on storytelling over heartstring tugs. There are no slapstick antics, no triumphant musical build to a victory, and absolutely no snuggles. It is more Where the Red Fern Grows than Beethoven.

When 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) relocates to Portland, Oregon, with his father, he tries to keep himself occupied despite not knowing the city or any people. His dad is more interested in women than parenting, and Charley finds himself alone more times than not. On a morning jog, he discovers a nearby horse track, Portland Downs (the real-life Portland Meadows). He explores the track and stumbles into a job with Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse trainer whose best days are behind him.

Lean on Pete is the latest movie about a human and animal bond, but it elevates the narrative to a whole new level.

Charley helps to care for the horses as Del takes them to tracks all over the Pacific Northwest to make a little money. Charley follows Del around and befriends a jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). Charley’s closest friend, however, is a quarter horse named Lean on Pete, who is past his prime as a short-distance specialist.

After Charley deals with tragedy at home, he discovers that Del is on the verge of selling Pete for slaughter. When Del asks Charley to bring the horse trailer to load up the horses, Charley loads up Pete and hits the road with $26 and a little bit of hope.

Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete

Based on the novel by Portland author Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete is the anti-summer blockbuster. Save two brief, intense scenes of violence, and a few seconds of horse racing, the movie revolves around Charley’s slow journey in search of something new. While Charley asks a lot of questions to the people he meets, the dialogue is deliberate and spaced out.

Buscemi plays the curmudgeonly, reluctant mentor to a tee, and Sevigny always delivers a solid performance. But Plummer is the true star here. Because of Charley’s transient nature—and that of the film in general—no supporting actor spends more than 20 minutes on screen.

Plummer carries the load, acting in every scene, as he moves from one obstacle to the next. He’s a 15-year-old kid forced into adulthood early. He is resilient as he struggles to hold his life together. He’s okay being an adult if it ultimately leads him to the normal life of a teenage boy. Pete gives Charley a reason to persevere. They both need to be saved, and rely on each other for survival.

Despite his hardships, Charley holds out for a glimmer of hope in trying to find an aunt he hasn’t heard from in three years. As he struggles to overcome a constant string of obstacles, Charley is forced to make difficult decisions in order to survive on his own. He never gives up hope of finding a fresh start and a hint of normalcy.

Lean on Pete has been playing in the art-house circuit for a couple of months and is one of the better coming-of-age films in recent memory. It is a well-made, character-driven drama that is worth the price of a movie (plus a box of tissues). The movie is depressing most of the way through, but viewers will be invested enough in Charley’s story that they, like the protagonist, will hold out for hope.


3.5/4 stars. Rated R for language and two brief scenes of violence. Mom and Dad: Mom yes; Dad will fall asleep.

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