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With: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Justin Rain, Lewis Pullman, Bob Olin, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Alison Elliott, Rachael Perrell Fosket, Jason Rouse, Travis Fimmel
Written by: Andrew Haigh, based on a novel by Willy Vlautin
Directed by: Andrew Haigh
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief violence
Running Time: 121
Date: 04/13/2018
IMDB

Lean on Pete (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All the Gritty Horses

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lean on Pete is a boy-meets-horse movie. But don't expect anything cuddly or kid-friendly like The Black Stallion (1979) here. This is a very tough movie that does not skimp on either the beauties or horrors of the world of horse-racing.

Adapted from a novel by Portland-based Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete tells the story of young Charley (Charlie Plummer), who is new in town and has no one other than his misfit father (Travis Fimmel). In a striking early scene, Charley enters the kitchen where a strange woman is preparing breakfast. His father shouts from the bedroom, and it seems as if we know where this is going.

But it doesn't go there. The father is complex. He's not abusive. He loves his son, but he's also just kind of a screw-up. The woman makes a nice breakfast and leaves. She seems kind. Charley's father says that she's a "friend from work." Charley goes running, taking in all the industrial and natural sounds around him, and becomes intrigued by a local race track.

Wandering inside, he meets horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), a cranky old cowboy who offers Charley a job, which Charley eagerly takes. He learns a little about how to lead a horse and how to drive Del's rattletrap old truck. He helps prepare for races, and meets kindly jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny). He also forms a bond with the horse Lean on Pete, even though Bonnie warns him against this.

As time goes on, Charley begins to see the uglier side of the business, accompanied by "look, kid, that's just the way it is." He also learns that horses are expendable. Once they start losing races, they are no longer worth the money it takes to care for them. This takes Lean on Pete into a startling direction, both poetic and shocking.

I don't want to say more, but unfortunately this leaves me without context to discuss Steve Zahn, who gives a weirdly unhinged performance in the movie's second half, so I will leave it at that. Sevigny is also typically fine here, but it's Buscemi who may have achieved a career best. His Del is so complex, a combination of grumpiness and kindness, of covering up and projecting an image, and yet so likable, that he's unforgettable.

Lean on Pete is directed by Andrew Haigh, who, as shown by his previous two films, the excellent Weekend (2011) and the flawed but Oscar-nominated 45 Years (2015), has a sure touch for characters in realistic environments. Though he's an Englishman working in rural America, he notices things, details about places that other filmmakers would leave in the background. He seems best when focusing on two characters relating to one another either verbally or non-verbally. Thus the scenes of Charley telling his deepest thoughts to Lean on Pete are quite moving, as if the horse were quietly listening and taking it all in.

Lean on Pete isn't an easy movie to watch, and I can't say for sure that I'd ever see it again, but so many of its small moments of observation and conversation seem to me to be more profound than in so many ordinary movies. It's one I won't easily forget.

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