Flicka, Seabiscuit, Black Beauty, National Velvet: cinema is not short on stories about the sacred bond between humans and their equine spirit animals.
But if Lean On Pete is a horse movie, it’s a Trojan one: a raw-boned, melancholic mood piece that trades in none of the easy inspiration its soft-glow poster and trailer might suggest. Charlie Plummer stars as Charley, a kid scraping by in the Pacific Northwest with his single dad, Ray (Vikings’ Travis Fimmel). Ray isn’t a bad guy, but he’s barely a parent; while he scrounges for beer money and amiably works his way through a long string of strippers and secretaries, his 15-year-old son is mostly left to raise himself.
That’s how Charley ends up wandering over one day to a nearby paddock, where he offers up his services to Del (Steve Buscemi), a race-circuit journeyman and inveterate crank — he spits out his words like he’s being paid by the epithet in a David Mamet play — with a stable that needs caring for. Through Del and his longtime jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), Charley carves out some temporary sense of place and family, and earns enough petty cash to bolster his habitual dinners of tap water and Cap’n Crunch. He also falls in love with Lean On Pete, a glossy-brown quarterhorse with soft black eyes and a career clock that’s quickly winding down.
Plummer, probably best known as the troubled teenage Getty scion in last year’s All the Money in the World, appears in every scene here — and whether through good luck or great instinct, writer-director Andrew Haigh has found exactly the right muse to hang the delicate frame of his story on, coaxing out a performance so interior and naturalistic it hardly feels like acting at all.
As in his two previous movies, 45 Years and Weekend, Haigh is much less interested in conventional character building and plot machinations than in the quiet accumulation of small moments. And his script, based on a 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, unfurls with a sort of lyrical, off-kilter grace, imbuing his rest stops and racetracks and wide-open Western landscapes with an aura so authentically out of time that it’s a mild shock near the end to see someone suddenly pull out an iPhone.
As Charley’s situation becomes increasingly precarious, the movie also becomes a meditation not just on what it is to live on the social and economic fringes in America, but how easy it is to slip through the cracks entirely. That may feel like a bait and switch to viewers who just came for some nice boy-and-his-horse uplift, but Pete is no kind of fairytale; instead, it’s something far sadder and better and more real. A-