Charley (Charlie Plummer) likes to run, he commits to a fitness regime whenever he can, simply jogging around his neighbourhood in Oregon, noting well the racetrack there and wishing he could get a job looking after the horses. His father Ray (Travis Fimmel) maybe drove away his mother when he was very small, Charley is not sure, but he does know he regrets her replacement in their lives Margy (Alison Elliott) leaving too: his dad is not such a bad guy, he simply makes poor choices, if anything he is more like an older brother than a parent. But one day, Charley happens to help out racehorse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) when his truck gets a flat tyre, and opportunity knocks...
Lean on Pete was adapted from the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin, drawn from his experiences at the racetrack and his early years as a troubled teen - the lead character here is just fifteen years old. According to him, it was a story about loneliness, a very current theme for the twenty-first century and as Charley has no online presence, nor any friends to connect to, he is painfully isolated as his father has not enrolled him in a new school after their move to Portland for a fresh start. This could be because the boy is living in the nineties, but there were no real specifics as to what time period it was set in, aside from the use of a mobile phone at one point.
It's not Charley's, in case you were wondering. Many were expecting a straightforward boy and his horse yarn along the lines of My Friend Flicka or The Black Stallion, or indeed any one of numerous big and small screen accounts of young kids bonding with a pet, yet this was as much a critique of those as it was a brutally realistic rejoinder to any number of romantic animal friendly movies. Lean on Pete, the name of the racehorse our hero latches onto, has no preternatural ability to communicate with Charley, indeed there is no sign the beast has any idea who the boy is from its first scene to its last, all the affection decidedly one-way traffic as far as it was concerned.
Not to say that dedicated animal lovers would not get anything out of it, as the kid's love for the animal and worries that Del will send it to Mexico to be slaughtered for meat down there meant there was a degree of emotion that director Andrew Haigh was not always keen to propagate. An air of unsentimental pragmatism ruled throughout, Charley more often than not numbed by the bad hand life is dealing him as his father is hospitalised; in that manner this was a sort of anti-The Journey of Natty Gann, substituting one not exactly reciprocated respect between species for another. They did have one thing in common, however, in that their final scenes were intended to allow the floodgates of tears open, and after all that harshness you would achieve a catharsis as instructed.
The issue you may have with that was the rest of the film, if not cold, displayed such a reserve that you would be acclimatised to its restraint to the extent that any bid to tug the heartstrings was arriving a shade too late in the day to have the intended effect. Nevertheless, as a depiction of the kind of unfortunate who, no matter all the safety nets in place in our society, managed to freefall into near oblivion, Lean on Pete was on firmer ground as far as appealing to the interest of the audience went, Charley meeting a variety of guest stars and supporting players to throw his own existence into sharper relief, be that Chloë Sevigny as the jockey who tries to stop him getting too attached to the horse, to Steve Zahn as the apparently friendly, then drunkenly aggressive, down and out who reminds us all the good intentions in the world don't always work out well. Newcomer Teyah Hartley, too, offered a sad portrayal of a girl who is picked on by all and sundry, but her need to be around someone leaves her with no choice. Episodic, then, but vividly put across and not as cold as it might seem. Music by James Edward Baker.
[Curzon's Blu-ray captures the sweeping landscapes with impressive clarity, and has lots of interviews - including an exclusive with Haigh - and a behind the scenes featurette as extras.]