SXSW Film Review: Lean on Pete

Growing up fast as a race horse in this gritty but moving drama

The plot of director Andrew Haigh’s newest melancholy tale sounds, on the face of it, cut from pure cheese. Don’t be fooled. Lean on Pete is a marvel of neo-realistic filmmaking, a trenchant and melancholy portrait of a 15-year-old boy seemingly destined to get the wrong end of the stick almost every time.

A tale of growing up the hard way, and a redemption and coming-of-age movie all wrapped in and coiled around a devastatingly pure performance from Charlie Plummer. His character takes your breath away, he’s so cowed by the world of the working poor, yet so clearly a potential heroic archetype that his character, Charley, silts itself in your mind long after the final images fade off the screen.

Charley (Charlie Plummer) is the son of waitress-loving, ex-cook Ray (Travis Fimmel) who's been shuttling himself and his son across the country for years, looking for factory work, a decent beer, and not a whole lot else. Recently landed in a down-and-out apartment complex on the edges of Portland, Charley spends his days running, and on one such run he encounters gangly horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi).

Del’s own racetrack luck bit the dust ages ago, but after fixing the tire on his horse trailer, Del offers Charley a job shoveling up horseshit and working with the few horses Del hasn’t yet sold off to “Mexico,” aka the glue factory. Charley instinctually bonds with one of Del’s horses, the titular Pete, despite the warnings of both Del and his best jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) that “that horse isn’t a pet.” Meanwhile, Charley’s dad has his own serious health problems, and so when Del takes Charley on the lowliest of horse racing circuits, it’s up to the boy to work his way into sudden manhood as quick as possible. It’s not easy. It might not even be possible. This kid’s alone and loneliness fills his orbit.

Lean on Pete is a methodical and memorable film primarily because director Haight, adapting from Will Vlautin’s novel, keeps a distance from his characters, never taking the easy route, and never, ever letting the movie enter the killing fields of the corny or cliched. Aided and abetted by the absolutely striking cinematography of Magnus Nordenhof Jonck and a pitch perfect cast, this is a sweet-and-sour hybrid film of the terrible now that also recalls some of the best of 1970s outsider cinema.

Lean on Pete

Festival Favorites
Wednesday, March 14, 2:15pm, Alamo Lamar

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