Lean on Pete is the hardscrabble coming-of-age odyssey of a boy and his eponymous horse. But while the equine is an unremarkable brown, the movie is a horse of a different color.
A deceptively simple tale of 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer), whose life goes from comfortable to chaotic when family tragedy strikes, the drama was one of the highlights of the recent Florida Film Festival. If you've got your cinematic blinders on, you might label this just another boy-meets-world-meets-animal story. And you might be forgiven for that, as the film's first third focuses on Charlie's unlikely friendship with a horse owner named Del (Steve Buscemi), a jockey called Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) and the horse itself, which is ultimately bound for a Mexican slaughterhouse. But the rest of the film veers surprisingly off course, mostly in a good way.
Technically a British production because of the English writer-director-producer team of Andrew Haigh (45 Years) and Tristan Goligher, Lean on Pete is quintessentially American. Set and filmed mostly in Oregon, and based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, it reeks of the West. Depicting the emotional and geographical wanderings of Charley, Haigh's film isn't afraid to wander as well – into territory that's both bleak and unexpectedly complex in its depictions of despair, perseverance and, ultimately, survival.
Structured more like three movies than a single, cohesive narrative, it does lose its way occasionally. Those detours are sometimes welcome and sometimes tedious, and, admittedly, one entire sub-story and set of characters could be excised. But at its core, this is a story of a soul going it alone and searching blindly for answers that may never come. Fittingly, those types of searches are never neat and tidy.
Though it carries a strong animal-rights message, Lean on Pete is one of the most human films you'll see this year. That's thanks mostly to the writing and performances, which demonstrate a patient and tender realism. Plummer, who was superb as the kidnapping victim in All the Money in the World, is again stellar. As always, Buscemi brings heart to an otherwise abhorrent character, and he's balanced nicely by a warm and intriguing turn by Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry, Zodiac). Also memorable despite his small part is Travis Fimmel (Vikings, Maggie's Plan), who imbues Charley's dad with a sensitivity that belies his gruff, immature exterior. And rounding out the strong supporting cast is Steve Zahn (Reality Bites, War for the Planet of the Apes), whose unforgettable encounter with Charley challenges our perception of the protagonist.
"You can't get attached to the horse," Bonnie tells Charley. But Charley does, and by doing so, finds himself.