There isn’t much story to “Lean on Pete”: A 16-year-old kid (Charlie Plummer), distraught after the sudden death of his lackadaisical single father (Travis Fimmel), runs off in search of his only other known relative. That journey of 1,000 miles or so is undertaken in the company of a worn-out racehorse, whose name lends the film its title.
That’s it. And yet, at the center of this oddly riveting little picaresque is a performance of such quiet power by Plummer – as an antihero both rash and precociously resourceful – that it’s easy to overlook the film’s flaws. There is a little too much time for soliloquizing, for instance, as the boy, Charley, and the horse pick their way from the Pacific Northwest to Wyoming, where he believes his aunt (Alison Elliott) lives. And when Charley breaks into a house along the way, stopping to gaze at the framed photos of the happy family and home life he never had, the contrivance of this opportunity for ruefulness is awkwardly apparent.
Still, the 18-year-old Plummer’s understated acting – the depths of which were only hinted at in “All the Money in the World,” where he played the kidnapping victim John Paul Getty III – is a revelation. By turns frantic, single-minded and lost in the space between confusion and resolve, the character of Charley is rendered as a work in progress: a half-finished, yet deeply appealing, version of the man he will become.
Over the course of the story, Charley encounters several people on whom he must rely for help: his father’s girlfriend (Amy Seimetz); the sleazy but kindhearted horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) who initially gives Charley a job and from whom the boy ultimately steals Pete; a motherly jockey (Chloe Sevigny); and an alcoholic drifter (Steve Zahn) who shares advice about surviving on the street. Each of these characters is, if only for the duration of a meal or a night, a kind of surrogate parent to Charley. As the film’s title suggests, Charley is looking for a support system – someone or something to lean on – yet he must take it wherever he can find it.
Like his last film, “45 Years” (for which Charlotte Rampling received an Oscar nomination), director Andrew Haigh depends heavily on a single actor to carry his story. The screenplay, co-written with Willy Vlautin, based on Vlautin’s 2010 novel, feels, at least superficially, slight.
And yet it contains, like Plummer’s acting, hidden depths.
To be sure, “Lean on Pete” is about the search for family. But “family” doesn’t just mean the people who take care of you. As becomes tragically clear, late in the film, family also refers to those whom we yearn to care for – whom we cherish – if we can.
The impulse to be nurtured – to be loved, to find a shoulder to lean on – is strong. But so, the film argues, is the equally human desire for someone or something, if only a horse, to lean back on us.
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