Directed by Andrew Haigh | Written by Haigh, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin | 121 min
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is an impoverished but self-reliant teenager living with his restless father (Travis Fimmel, another in his catalogue of self-involved dads, following Ragnar in Vikings) in Oregon, having just moved into the State. Charley picks up some work at the local racetrack with an owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), and a jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), but what he really enjoys is time with a quarter horse. Bonnie advises him not to get attached. “They’re not pets,” she says. It’s not advice he takes.
But this isn’t your typical Boy And His Horse story. It is the key relationship in the film, but it’s really Charley’s story alone, his coming of age absent any of the cuter signposts of the teen genre. The picture meanders, taking a detour from an up-close character study to an epic, wide-screen American yarn. Typically, these stories are about how the boy will save the animal and vice versa. But that’s not really what’s going on here, either.
At its heart, this is a deeply solemn drama that refuses to give safe passage to its lead characters or its audience, instead carving us both up with the same dramatic edge. It’s not absent hope, but Lean On Pete won’t give you much to hang onto through its two-hour runtime. There are, in fact, stretches where it demands more than I was willing to give, but I’m glad I stuck with it, even when its emotional crescendo unfortunately comes 20 minutes before the credits roll.
One of the things I really liked about it is it’s hard to say when all this takes place. This is no accident: Haigh’s pointed effort to avoid locking the story in time helps make the film feel more universal somehow, and maybe taps into that eternal myth of the American cowboy. Only toward the end when a cell phone shows up does that element begin to narrow, and make you wonder how Charley, on a difficult road to track down a lost family member, didn’t once rely on Google.