I can’t begin to tell you how many times I expected Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete to fall in the same league as Seabiscuit, Hidalgo, Secretariat, and so many other films about horses and horse racing. Sure, I knew this was going to be more for adults, since it is rated R, and it is an A24 release. The latter usually means we’re in for something different, and that certainly is the case here.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a 16-year-old boy living with his out-of-control father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who struggles to make ends meet, but is always up for some alcohol and loose women. Early on in the film, we see a woman cooking up a meal. Obviously, it’s not Charley’s mom, because of the way Charley introduces himself to her when he walks in the door. Ray then stumbles out, still heavily intoxicated, and says this new lady friend is married, but she and her husband have separated.
It’s pretty clear that Ray’s moral compass is constantly spinning in an endless circle, but, in reality, he does love his son. Things haven’t been the same for the two ever since Charley’s mom left, and that’s way before the movie starts. Although the two of them have relocated multiple times, and Ray is doing the best that he can to make Charley happy, Ray still knows that he hasn’t made the best decisions in life for himself and for his son.
Charley constantly battles for a normal life. Having once been a football player and an exceptional student at his former school, he makes do with what he has now. His escapism lies within running. Each morning, he gets up and goes for a run. To where, the viewer does not know, but it seems like it’s his way of breaking free from the things getting him down. His other sense of escapism is located at the Portland Downs, a horse-racing track in Portland, OR. There, he learns about everything that has to do with racing and what goes on behind the scenes, from the training all the way down to the gambling.
Charley soon develops a passion for the sport and befriends Del (Steve Buscemi), a cantankerous, quarter-horse trainer who races the horses until they are no longer good to him. Once he’s done with them, he sells them to someone in Mexico. Charley takes up a job taking care of the horses and their stalls. It’s not much money, but it’s what he can get for now. He soon becomes close with one of the horses named Lean on Pete (or Pete, for short). When Del says he’s going to get rid of Pete, Charley steals the horse and goes on a state-by-state journey to find an aunt with whom his dad lost contact many years prior.
As much as the plot synopsis reads like it does, Haigh doesn’t go for syrupy-sweet sentimentality here. There’s no big orchestra accompanying any of the races to toy with the viewer’s emotions. James Edward Barker crafts a score that is aptly understated, allowing the viewer to find the real, raw emotion of the story.
Haigh places the story of a boy and his horse inside one that examines the economic hardships of many. It’s a look at a society that isn’t quite as glamorous as many think, even for those who do race. Each person Charley encounters, from his own father to some homeless people living in a trailer, has been through some rough experiences, and, in the end, it has taken a major toll on their way of living. Ray may not seem like that great of a person upon first glance, but after a closer look and more personal conversations with his own son, we see just how far down the rabbit hole he has fallen, and he is constantly trying to bring himself back up to the surface. It’s a devastating performance from Fimmel.
Buscemi is absolutely terrific as Del, who has seen his fair share of horse races and has raised so many at this point that he just doesn’t have the same emotional investment in it he once had. For him, he’s just continuing what he’s done for most of his life in order to make the payments.
Nearly every character in Lean on Pete is an example of someone who’s given up. Charley, however, has not. And despite all the obstacles in his way, he will accomplish whatever goals he sets. Having proven how great of a supporting actor he is in last year’s All the Money in the World, Plummer proves here that he can easily carry a movie on his own as well. And for a good portion, he has to do just that. His connection to Pete and wanting to take him to a safe place is real and relatable for those who have had a pet in their life and don’t want to let it go that easily.
The reason why Lean on Pete is so much different than most horse movies is because it sidesteps a lot of the emotional trickery that most filmmakers use to elicit tears from a moviegoer. It avoids most cliches seen in other movies of the genre, but even the ones used have a more earnest feel to them. Haigh’s direction, which mostly consists of long takes, gives Lean on Pete a more grounded approach, too, making the viewer feel like he or she is witnessing the story in real life.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray release of Lean on Pete is presented in 1080p high definition with a 16x9 widescreen format. The sound is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. For the special features, there is only one on the disc. “Searching for Home” takes a look at the making of the movie and features interviews with Haigh and the main cast members. It’s a 27-minute feature, which is more than your average EPK material, but it’s still pretty standard.
Lean on Pete is definitely a tearjerker, but it doesn’t force the viewer to cry at key moments. The cinematography, especially in the wide open areas, is breathtaking to behold, even for a film with such a grim look at people facing economic hardships. Its realism runs deep, and the emotions that conjure up during one viewing are appropriately earned. This is a definite recommendation, but also be sure to have some tissue next to you.
Lean on Pete releases to Blu-ray on July 10.