Lean on Pete

Newly relocated to Portland from Spokane for his dad Ray's (Travis Fimmel, TV's 'Vikings') job, teenaged Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer, "All the Money in the World") is attracted to the world of horse racing after passing Portland Downs on his daily run. When down-at-his-heels trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) offers Charley $10 to help him change a tire, it turns into a regular job, but when Charley ends up all alone in the world, he risks everything to save Del's worst race horse, "Lean on Pete."

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Andrew Haigh's ("Weekend," "45 Years") latest cements his considerable talent in harnessing the talent of his actors. This coming-of-age/road movie, adapted from Willy Vlautin's book, features an affecting performance by Charlie Plummer as the fifteen year-old trying to find family as his natural one is stripped away from him. Storywise, this is the most old-fashioned film to come from Haigh, but its depth of humanity elevates it in an otherwise over-crowded genre.

Ray and Charley are barely eking by, but their love for each other is evident and they both appear happy. If there is a regret, it is Charley's disconnect from his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") due to a rift with his dad. When we meet the two, they're thrilled that Lynn (Amy Seimetz, "Upstream Color"), a woman Ray claims is only a work friend yet notes has a 'big Samoan' husband, has made them breakfast, but those eggs will have dire consequences.

In fact, every meal Charley has in "Lean on Pete" is meaningful, Del advising his young employee that 'all the best women have been waitresses at some point,' before docking his pay in exchange for the meal they are eating. Del, who thrilled Charley by doubling his pay after his first overnight race for 'doing a good job,' is a good guy beaten down by circumstance, a horse trainer hanging on with quarter horse races at local fairs sending also rans 'to Mexico,' the creatures he once loved now assessed only in economic terms. His equally pragmatic jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) warns Charley not to become attached to the animals, that they are not pets, but Charley sees himself in the gentle Lean on Pete and when Del orders him to move the horse, Charley takes Pete and takes off.

The second half of the film becomes road movie as Charley meets people good, bad and indifferent. He spends his last $27 on gas, then begins siphoning. A waitress notes the boy's hunger, advising her boss to call off the cops after a 'dine and dash.' When Del's old truck gives up the ghost, Charley leads Pete on foot, taken in for a meal in the middle of nowhere. He places calls to a bar in Wyoming, the last place he'd known his aunt to work, tracing her to Laramie. Heading in that direction, things get far worse before they get better.

Plummer is so good in this role, a young man who refuses to ask for help, insistent on making his own way - watch his face whenever he receives payment for a job well done, the actor flushing with joy at his ability to provide for himself. His compassion extends not only to Pete, but to a young girl taunted by her grandfather over her weight. Helping her with the dishes, he asks her why she puts up with his treatment and discovers she's just like him, someone with nowhere else to go, a kid with no options. When a seemingly helpful homeless man, Silver (Steve Zahn), steals his hard earned cash, Charley finally retaliates, then apologizes for doing so. Buscemi and Sevigny are the standouts in support, Buscemi letting us see who Del once was as he struggles to survive, Sevigny's matter-of-fact recital of her hard-knock life offering another portrait of how a person's best self is affected by hardship.

Haigh doesn't pull any punches, at one point delivering a sudden blow so devastating we don't know if we can continue, let alone Charley. But the idea of home is the undying beacon that allows Charley to persevere. The young boy we never see sleep in an actual bed finally finds one. Haigh circles back to his beginning, Charley on a morning run. He's happy once again, and, as we can see by his appearance, finally in a position to hope for the future.

Robin's Review: DNS