By Nick Boyd
“Lean on Pete,” a deeply affecting movie about an adolescent’s strong devotion to a racehorse, is a harshly unsentimental look at loyalty, friendship, and survival. Charley Thompson, played to perfection by actor Charlie Plummer, moves with his single dad Ray (Travis Fimmel) to the outskirts of Portland, and soon finds work tending to the horses with a cynical horse trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi). The teen, who is friendless in a new city, forms a strong bond with one of them (named ‘Lean on Pete’). As it is a paid job, albeit not much, Charley is able to chip in with the groceries and help his dad out. Staying out of poverty is a daily struggle. He frequently find himself traveling for races with Del and a female jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), who is almost as cynical as Del. While at these races, Charley finds himself enthralled, akin to a theme park aficionado atop a roller coaster. Compared to Del’s gruff exterior, Bonnie is much more tender with Charley, yet still level-headed, as she warns him not to get too attached to the horses because once they are past their prime they’re off to Mexico, which the viewer can infer is a fate which terrifies Charley.
Charley finds himself very loyal to Pete. Their friendship, more than any human relationship in the picture, is what makes this so special. Charley appreciates that Pete does not in any way judge him and finds himself leaning on him (hence the title) in times of emotional turmoil, which for Charley is all too often.
Around the midway point, the film goes off in directions the viewer does not see coming. It becomes a film about resilience, determination, and strength in dire straits. The harsh, dry landscape underscores the severity of the situation that the protagonist finds himself in.
Far from merely a simple boy and his horse picture geared for younger audiences, the movie features a remarkable performance of much range by Plummer and good supporting work by Buscemi and Sevigny. Plummer is reminiscent of a young River Phoenix in how he carries himself as well as his ease in portraying a vulnerable character forced to grow up too early. He transforms before our eyes, from a naive, innocent adolescent to one who has to come-of-age very fast. From an audience standpoint, we root for Charley’s success as he travels on his heartrending journey. Take a chance on this and you will be greatly rewarded emotionally.