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Movie review: ‘Lean on Pete’ is unique and gently captivating

Lean on Pete; 120 minutes; Rated R

By Chris Honoré

for Revels

There was a time when men and women and their children sat around a campfire, surrounded by darkness, under a canopy of stars, listening to stories that captured their imaginations. And those huddled in that circle were transported to a different place and a different time.

Therein is the essence of good, sometimes great literature. And there is, of course, film. And what is film if not a compelling expression of the impulse to tell a story? It can be artful in its ability to frame the human experience in all its permutations, possessing moments that can be luminous, even magical, to the grimmest geography of mankind’s soul.

Isn’t that why we have, for nearly a century, walked into a darkened theater and sat, like those around the campfire, and waited to be told an irresistible story?

The film “Lean on Pete” is a perfect example — a soft narrative that is unique and gently captivating. Its point of view is that of an isolated 15-year-old boy named Charley (Charlie Plummer), now living with his father (Travis Fimmel) in Portland.

Charley discovers a nearby racetrack, Portland Downs, and it’s there that he finds a part-time job working for a crusty, cynical racehorse owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), who hires the boy to take care of Pete, a 5-year-old quarterhorse. Gradually, a bond takes hold between the horse and Charley, and he discovers that horses, just like people, respond to those who trust and can be trusted.

The boy has only his father, his mother having left him as a young child, vanishing from his life without explanation. Charley is left to imagine why. His father, while kind, is rootless, a drifter, and Portland is the most recent place in a series of places.

What Charley finds in the stables that border the track is not only Pete, but also a sanctuary. And when a tragedy occurs, violent and unexpected, it’s where he turns. But he doesn’t look to Del nor his regular jockey, Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny); instead, he stays at the stables (secretly sleeping in a tack room) and, of course, leans on Pete for solace and comfort, despite the repeated advice by Bonnie that horses are not pets.

With Bonnie riding another of Del’s horses, Pete loses his race. It’s then that Charley learns of Pete’s fate. The horse is headed to Mexico, for what is never made explicit though implied.

And it’s at that moment that “Lean on Pete” is transformed into an odyssey as the boy and the horse escape, at first in Del’s truck with horse trailer, heading to Laramie, Wyoming, where Charley hopes to find his aunt, someone that he only barely remembers.

The journey is grim and hard-edged. This is not a Disneyesque boy-and-horse film. Rather, it is far too honest as Charley discovers that what has been a life narrowly hardscrabble is actually part of a greater, often inhospitable landscape.

As Pete and Charley walk across an expansive, desiccated desert, the boy talks to the horse with an ease he has never felt with any person. There are moments that are tender; however, when Charley is alone in a city, he must struggle to survive. And yet he tenaciously continues, searching, hoping to find a place he can finally call home.