A con­tem­po­rary horse story of a dif­fer­ent, darker color

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - CALENDAR MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

When we first see 15year-old Charley Thomp­son, the hu­man cen­ter of the devastating new film “Lean on Pete,” he’s jog­ging on the streets of Port­land, Ore., a long way from the bo­hemian cof­fee bars and “Port­landia” cliches of pop­u­lar cul­ture. This is the other side of the tracks, the Amer­ica all around us. Ex­cept on our screens.

Charley and his fond if un­re­li­able fa­ther (Travis Fim­mel) have re­cently moved to Port­land from Spokane, Wash. Charley is wait­ing for school and for foot­ball sea­son to start up again. His life is re­lo­ca­tion, in per­sis­tent cy­cles. The house he and his fa­ther live in at the start of “Lean on Pete” does the job, barely. The lamps have no lamp­shades; the paper towel dis­penser on the kitchen counter has no paper tow­els.

Grad­u­ally, the boy’s world opens up and then falls out from un­der him. In the film’s dark­est pas­sages, on a dan­ger­ous trek east to Wyoming, the tac­i­turn young man played so sim­ply and so well by Char­lie Plum­mer en­dures a world of hard­ship that feels like real life, not movie life, and cer­tainly not like a con­ven­tional movie about a boy and his horse.

What happens to this teenager, whose clos­est friend is an ag­ing quar­ter horse near the end of his rac­ing ca­reer, be­comes a drain­ing and of­ten bru­tal ex­pe­ri­ence. And yet “Lean on Pete” doesn’t bear down on the pathos. Based on the 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, the film comes from the British wri­ter­di­rec­tor An­drew Haigh. He has that rare dra­matic in­stinct: tact. Fol­low­ing “Week­end” (2011) and “45 Years” (2015), Haigh’s MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage and brief vi­o­lence) Run­ning time: 2:01 Opens: Fri­day por­traits of re­la­tion­ships at op­po­site points of a timeline, the film­maker’s first Amer­i­can project puts you through it, hu­manely, re­mind­ing you with­out ham­mer­ing the point: So many peo­ple live like this; some lives are like this, ev­ery day. And happy end­ings may sim­ply be a mat­ter of chance.

In “All the Money in the World,” Plum­mer played John Paul Getty III, and there he didn’t get to do much be­yond dither­ing and pan­ick­ing in re­ac­tion shots. The movie kept him at a re­move and in­side a nar­row in­ter­pre­tive box. “Lean on Pete” takes the lid off, and guided by Haigh, the ac­tor seizes the day.

Early in the pic­ture, Charley spies a bill­board in the back­ground for Port­land Mead­ows race track, an unglam­orous relic. There Charley meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a brusque owner of “about six” horses, one of whom is a 5-year-old named Lean on Pete. This is not Mickey Rooney in “The Black Stal­lion”; this is a tough, hard-drink­ing, volatile man.

He’s also an op­por­tu­nity for Charley, who gets $25 to help Del with an overnight trip to a nearby race­course. The boy learns about horses and a lit­tle bit about the shady meth­ods (elec­tronic “buzzing” and il­le­gal pills) Del de­ploys to get Lean on Pete to run faster. Chloe Se­vi­gny is Bon­nie, a some­time jockey who puts a good face on a tough life les­son for Charley: “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.”

Bon­nie and Del re­mind the boy not to get “at­tached” to Lean on Pete; the horse is head­ing to Mex­ico for slaugh­ter soon enough. But Charley wants to write his friend a dif­fer­ent sort of end­ing. The film’s chal­leng­ing, some­what flawed sec­ond half trans­forms Charley from work­ing-class kid with a fa­ther, a semi-sta­ble life and some pocket money to a young man on the edge of the abyss.

This is Steinbeck’s “Trav­els With Charley” for a new, harsher age, but with grace notes of hu­man­ity through­out. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Char­lie Plum­mer plays a work­ing-class teenager mak­ing his way through the West in An­drew Haigh’s drama.

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