Not so much the story of a racehorse as it is the story of a boy finding his way in a lonely world, Lean on Pete captures the sad reality of youth living in poverty within a society that has all but forgotten it.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a young boy with an aptitude for running. This ironic foreshadowing delivered by director Andrew Haigh serves to emphasise the theme of running that is evident throughout the film. Charley, abandoned by his mother and raised by his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), has spent the better part of his life relocating across the country in chase of his father’s warehouse work.
Upon moving to Portland, Oregon, Charley gets a job working for a washed-up horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi), earning him enough money to put food on the table when Ray cannot. Charley befriends Lean on Pete, an older racehorse for whom Del cares little for. When Ray ends up in hospital and Charley is left to fend for himself, he steals away with Lean on Pete and takes the horse on an adventure across the country. This adventure sees Charley faced with unexpected and gruelling challenges that tear at the heartstrings and leave us lumped with a new understanding of youth in poverty.
Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin and adapted to the screen by Andrew Haigh, Lean On Pete tells a story that many of us in the modern world don’t want to hear, a story of one boy’s monetary and familial struggles, his love for his father, his acceptance of a lesser life and his incredible strength of character. Though there is space for character development in many of the varying roles, each character forgoes their opportunity for growth and Charley is the only one who ends up doing so.
Lean on Pete cleverly captures a side of the USA that is often ignored by the media, one that reflects the truth of youths living in poverty, widespread homelessness, abusive familial and romantic relationships, animal abuse, soldiers returning from war and consequently being forgotten, and so much more. In a country known predominantly for its celebrity, politics and global influence, Andrew Haigh brings us a film that questions these notions and reveals instead the reality that lies beneath.
Director Andrew Haigh has referred to Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny as “the king and queen of American independent cinema,” respectively.