In some ways, Lean on Pete is your standard boy-and-his-horse movie. There’s Charley, the quiet, contemplative 15-year-old played by All the Money in the World breakout Charlie Plummer, and there’s Pete, the aging racehorse he befriends. Together, they find themselves on an unlikely journey through the American West.
But that’s about as conventional as Lean on Pete gets. Instead of being your traditional, heartwarming coming-of-age tale, Andrew Haigh’s drama is something far more devastating — and far more beautiful. Anchored by Plummer’s quiet but mesmerizing lead performance, Lean on Pete is an unflinching but ultimately hopeful look at one boy’s quest to belong, even as his life descends into tragedy.
“[Sentimentality] is something that Andrew and I both wanted to avoid, right from the jump,” Plummer tells EW. “And that’s something I always want to avoid. I just think that can force your audience into feeling a certain way, and a lot of times that can be false. I would always make that my goal to not be sentimental in the scene, but to rather be just as truthful as possible and trust the audience.”
As the writer-director of films like 45 Years and Weekend, Haigh specializes in unexpected stories about isolated people trying to connect, and Lean on Pete is no different. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, it follows the young, impoverished Charley as he starts hanging around the local racetrack, desperate for a job — and maybe some friends. There, he meets and starts working for a gruff horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) and a jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). One of Del’s horses is the declining and altogether unremarkable quarter horse Lean on Pete, and Charley soon forms a special bond with him.
But as Charley’s home life spirals into chaos and Del makes plans to sell Pete, Charley sets out on an impulsive journey from his home in Oregon to his aunt’s in Wyoming.
The 18-year-old Plummer has earned buzz for playing the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, but he’s in almost every frame of Lean on Pete, and he imbues the young Charley with a tenderness and subtlety. Plummer immediately connected with Haigh’s matter-of-fact script, and before his audition, he wrote the director a letter talking about how much he fell in love with Charley’s journey.
“It came from this crazy passionate place for me of, like, ‘I can’t just sit around and do nothing,'” Plummer explains. “‘I have to somehow make my thoughts known to this guy.'”
He got the role and started filming shortly after his 17th birthday, but there was one complication: He’d never really spent any time around horses. So, Plummer immediately began working with horse trainers to learn his way around the stable.
“I was nervous the first day I showed up,” he admits, “because horses are big animals and they tell you right off the bat: You have to be really tough and strict with them because they will push you around and they’ll step on your feet, and you have to be really aware at all times.”
But Plummer almost immediately bonded with the first-time actor playing Pete: a quarter horse named Starsky. “He’s kind of like a big puppy dog, but even smarter,” Plummer gushes. “And I feel like you could see a little bit more of what was going on with him because he has these huge, beautiful eyes and a lot of personality.”
The character of Charley spends most of his time silently observing or on the fringes, but once he and Pete get out into the wilderness, the young boy opens up about his fears and struggles. It was these scenes that presented the biggest challenge for Plummer, both as an actor and because he had to guide Starsky without the trainers’ help. But it was advice from Buscemi, who Plummer had briefly worked with on Boardwalk Empire (“I like to say that I was basically a piece of set dressing on that show,” Plummer jokes), that helped him relax.
“It was kind of a nerve-wracking thing of, like, ‘Oh man, I’m going to be on my own, except of course for this horse,'” Plummer says. “But I remember talking to Steve and him just telling me to really appreciate that time. We were in the middle of nowhere, where it was just gorgeous, and you’d wake up every day and be surrounded by the desert and the sands and all these creatures in this tiny town that most people probably will never get to go to. And then, of course, you’re getting to work with this creature. And I just remember him telling me to really that appreciate that. And I think that was something that I really carried with me, or tried to at least: to really just appreciate every moment I had with Starsky and in these beautiful environments.”
Lean on Pete is in theaters now.