I listened to a guy on a podcast recently insisting he's only interested in movies about people, never movies about animals. Movie animals are always anthropomorphized, he said, as a means of emotional manipulation.
Someone should show that guy Lean on Pete, the movie about a teenager named Charley (a truly excellent Charlie Plummer) who runs away with a racehorse. I'm not going to lie: this movie is a tearjerker. It even goes to some surprisingly dark places, and ends with the kind of cry that is a relief.
But the titular racehorse? Writer-director Andrew Haigh is never at all sentimental about him. This really is a human story, one about a boy with no anchor in his life, an absent mother and a negligent father, who projects his own emotions onto that horse. The jockey he meets, in the form of Chloë Sevigny, who has twenty years experience racing horses, tells him over and over not to get attached to the horse.
The thing is, Charley never lets on to any of the people he runs across exactly what's going on in his life. Before he's even taking off with the horse he learns is otherwise headed to slaughter in Mexico, he's sleeping overnight in one of the stables of the guy he's started working for (Steve Buscemi). His home life takes a suddenly violent turn and Charley can't bear to stay there. There are many more details there that I don't want to spoil.
Maybe the first half of Lean on Pete focuses on the job Charley gets at the horse racetrack, earning money from a potential father figure, of the kind he sorely needs. All the people he's working with know is that Charley is steadily becoming too attached to that horse. They have no concept of why, and once Charley decides to take off with the truck and its horse trailer, they are never seen again.
The second half, then, follows Charley as he attemps to travel from Oregon to Wyoming, where he understands the beloved aunt, who had a falling out with his father four years before, lives. It's a sort of unusual road trip movie, which gets more depressing the more filthy Charley gets. He does sneak into someone's house to use their washing machine.
Call it a spoiler if you like, but I think anyone who sets out to watch Lean on Pete should be warned that things don't exactly bode well for that horse. The revelation of Lean on Pete's fate is jarring, to say the least. Some might call it genuinely disturbing. To the movie's credit, at least, it's not in the least bit contrived -- as can be said for most of the story. What becomes of Pete, and particularly of this horse, is about what could be expected of a wandering teenage boy with little experience.
It's still a while even after that before we find out what's waiting for Charley in Wyoming. There's time for yet another stop along the way for Charley to spend some time in the bad part of a city he's passing through, where he meets a conniving homeless man (Steve Zahn). Lean on Pete never takes the clichéd paths traveled by other movies, but still it does show Charley sinking to some very bad behaviors, just to get by.
It's hard to take your eyes off of it, though. Its Eastern Oregon desert vistas are well shot, the performances across the board are excellent, and Charlie Plummer, previously seen as John Paul Getty III in last year's criminally underappreciated All the Money in the World, is reason to see the movie on his own. Most notably, it takes an unusually realistic look at the animals it features, presenting them as they really are -- undeserving of suffering, of course, but also not in any way inhuman. Charley's attachment to Lean on Pete is entirely a reflection of Charley and really, all Lean on Pete cares about is getting some needed space and a place to shit.
That doesn't make Lean on Pete any less effective as a film -- and it could be argued it's made even more so by it. All the compassion is aimed at Charley, which is where it should be. You'll cry for the horse as well, certainly, but the cathartic tears are reserved for that poor boy. And that's a good thing. There comes a point in Lean on Pete when it begins to feel like maybe just a little too much despair, but don't fret. This movie will leave you feeling hopeful about the things the truly resilient can survive.