On the surface, Lean On Pete, looks like your typical horse movie: an embattled youth, a family tragedy, an emotional journey. It has all of those elements, to be sure, but Lean On Pete takes a different tack, and eventually veers in an entirely new direction. Charlie Plummer stars as Charley Thompson, the embattled youth who befriends the titular aging racehorse.
Here’s the deal with Charley. He’s just moved to the fringes of Portland, Oregon with his dad, an alcoholic who loves his kid, but not more than he loves the bottle or chasing women, and so he never manages to do quite right by him. Charley’s an athlete and sweet almost to a fault, even though he’s living in a place where he has to put his Cap’n Crunch in the fridge to keep the roaches out … and he’s lucky if he has a box of that to keep him fed in the first place. Left to roam his new town during sweltering days and nights of solitude, he soon comes across a racetrack and begins jogging by to catch glimpses of the horses.
And so, he meets an aging, crooked trainer named Del, (Steve Buscemi) who gives him a summer job and endeavors to teach him something of the world. He’s not an ideal father figure, but he compliments the less than ideal father Charley already has. As part of his new job Charlie meets a seasoned jockey, Bonnie, (Chloe Sevigny), with a good heart, but an ever-present desperation to race that lands her with suspicious characters like Del. And of course, he gets to know Lean On Pete, the horse who becomes a metaphor for his father when a family tragedy strikes and Charley has nowhere to turn but to his new dysfunctional racetrack family.
If things sound like a more grimy version of the standard so far, rest assured that we’re about to take a sharp turn into the unfamiliar. When Pete is put in jeopardy, Charley takes dire action to find the both of them a new home. It’s around this time that Lean On Pete starts to illicit audience reaction in a manner more natural to a horror film than a drama. At times this is exhilarating, a bit of electricity in a tried genre. By other turns it’s overwrought. more than once, you’ll have to suppress the feeling that all of this could have been avoided very, very simply. And so, this tale of boy and horse turns stale by stretches, even as it subverts expectations.
Lean On Pete deserves credit for its unbridled experimentation and solid performances, but some missteps in plot and pacing nearly unseat the whole affair. Those who crave the unique and unlikely in their indie films should bet on Pete — because it’s not a horse movie, it’s an A24 horse movie.