Lean on Pete
British director Andrew Haigh has adapted Willy Vlautin's novel following a teenager who forms a strong bond with a racehorse.
Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, British director Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete centres on the special relationship between 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and the spirited but mediocre racehorse that gives the film its title.
Charley finds solace from his troubled family life in running. His dad (Travis Fimmel) loves him and tries his best but refuses to let his parental responsibilities get in the way of women and beer.
On one jog, he eventually discovers a rundown working racetrack, where he meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a shabby curmudgeon of an owner/trainer, who hires him to perform odd jobs and help look after his horses - including Pete. Charley's hard work earns him some spare cash and also takes his mind off his family life, as he forms a bond with the animal.
However, his father's reckless love life has tragic consequences, leaving the teenager without a home. In Del, Pete and his regular jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), Charley finds a surrogate family with whom he can travel from track to track as they compete around the Pacific Northwest. However, it's a relationship that cannot last due to the ruthless nature of Del and the racing business itself. When it becomes clear that Pete's days may be numbered, he takes the horse and runs away (he cannot ride him). Once again Charley finds himself without a home and faces a journey across America's western hinterlands with only his equine pal for company and the hope of finding his long-lost aunt to drive him on.
The film repeatedly tugs at the heartstrings but is uneven in its pacing as it is split into three very distinct acts. What initially seems to be a movie about a gang of misfits thrown together by circumstance turns abruptly when Charley realises he won't find a happy ending on the racetrack. Haigh then pivots to telling the story of a boy's enduring love for a beast who understands him better than the world-weary adults surrounding him. It's a tale set against majestic American landscapes that twists once more to an emotional finale.
The film's very different parts don't completely mesh into a coherent whole - but strong performances from the cast, notably 18-year-old Plummer, who carries the second act with a quiet dignity - ensure its poignant moments hit their target.
Sevigny and Buscemi are tremendous as a misanthropic double-act thrust into a mentorship role neither want, and aren't prepared to go out of their way to take up. However, both are sidelined relatively early so don't get to express their full talents and develop their characters. It's a shame, because the dynamics between the trio are the most fascinating part of the movie, and Del and Bonnie's cynical but respectful relationship with each other and Charley could be the focus of its own film.
Although the rest of Lean on Pete's running time lacks the nuance of its opening act, Haigh adeptly uses the stunning American landscapes and Plummer to create genuinely moving moments - often with very little dialogue. As a result, by the time we reach the finale, it's difficult not to shed a tear. So, while this tale of a boy and his horse may wander off track, it packs a real emotional punch.
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