SXSW 2018: Lean on Pete
There’s only so much one can take. Lean on Pete fools you into thinking you’re in store for an inspirational tale—our lead is an impoverished kid, Charley (Charlie Plummer), living with his dad in the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Charley ends up working for a racehorse wrangler, Del (Steve Buscemi), and you’d think things would start panning out for this kid and the horse he grows attached to, named 'Lean on Pete'.
But, no—Lean on Pete puts Charley through the wringer. He learns about the dark side of horse racing and devises a plan to save Pete. What’s painful is that Plummer’s performance really makes you care for Charley. Each stumble stings, and you want him to succeed, but it’s a rough road ahead. Charley takes it in, pushing forward and braving through. And those moments when he does show cracks in his defense are truly heart-wrenching.
As an inverse to such horse-driven films like Black Beauty and Seabiscuit, Lean on Pete shows the reality of keeping up a racehorse stable. Buscemi’s Del pulls no punches and whatever passion he had for the sport is gone. Charley doesn’t find a father figure in Del, as Buscemi plays him with the right level of sliminess, with a hint of compassion for Charley and his plight—but those come moments come few and far between.
Travis Fimmel portrays Charley’s father, Ray, a man who gets into too much trouble far too quickly—an affair with the wrong married woman lands him in the hospital. Charley wants to desperately reconnect with his aunt, Ray’s sister, but Ray refuses. Charley’s mother left years ago, leaving him with just his aunt as a mother figure. With his mother, and now father out of the picture, Charley resorts to the one thing that has the slightest bit of open arms for him—horse racing.
Chloë Sevigny plays Bonnie, a jockey who works with Del and who befriends Charley. Her moments may be fleeting, but her character is yet another vital stepping stone, or road block to Charley’s happiness. Horses are illegally drugged and prodded, all to shave off seconds. The parallels between Pete and Charley show—as the system has no sympathy for either.
Similar to Into the Wild, Charley eventually goes on a journey and meets other vibrant characters placed against the American Northwest. He meets kind soldiers fresh off tour, and a homeless pair who take advantage of him. It’s a beautifully-shot stretch of the movie, once Charley breaks free, but it remains brutal all the same.
In all, Lean on Pete keeps us on edge. It provides a lead character who we want to succeed and we worry if his actions will ever get him that happiness we know he deserves. It may be too painful and too real to watch for some viewers, but that’s a testament to writer-director Andrew Haigh’s (Weekend, 45 Years) dedication to this adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel. Like a great book, once you start your journey with Charley, you can’t look away until the very end, no matter how traumatic the experience.