Lean on Pete

Apr 25, 2018

An unsentimental indie with heart and pathos in equal measure.

Lean on Pete

Grade: A-

Director: Andrew Haigh

Screenplay: Haigh, from Willy Vlautin novel

Cast: Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World), Chloe Sevigny (Love & Friendship)

Rating: R

Runtime: 2hr 1 min

by John DeSando

If you think Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, adapted from the novel by writer-musician Willy Vlautin, is a boiler plate boy and his horse idyll, then go see Black Stallion. Here is the story of an underclass teen, 15 year old Charley (Charlie Plummer), who happens on a summer job tending stables and horses that gives him purpose and edges him into adulthood with love and tragedy.

Set in the Pacific Northwest’s Portland, the unsentimental dramatic adventure has encounters with his single father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), and girlfriends like a married secretary (Amy Seimetz) who brings Ray enormous trouble. Charley experiences loving that can be violent and survival that is uncertain.

Better is his experience with horses and a sleazy owner, Del (Steve Buscemi), who shows him how to tend the horses and eat in a civilized fashion, as well as the underbelly of horse racing on the low-end circuit.  Del, a complex character of the rough and soft, leads Charley to his first big love, aging quarter horse Lean on Pete, on whom Charlie will lean for emotional support as long as fate allows. Absconding with Pete to keep him from the slaughterhouse leads Charley to parlous times and tragedy but toward salvation.

The first half is chockfull of small experiences with the underclass, each member of whom is struggling to survive but not without a few raucous interludes. Basically, however, life in trailers and moveable horse races frequently leads to grim futures.

As with any teen, breaking with parents and guardians is crucial to maturation, and Charley is no different. When he and Pete take off to find long lost Aunt Margy (Alison Elliot), the broad vista of the West, dramatically photographed by Magnus Jonck, beckons the wanderers and portends dramatic challenges, not the least of which are the desert and unscrupulous adults.

Yet, listening to Charley confide about his life to Pete as they amble to the future is one of the film’s understated delights. Like the film itself, we can exult in Charley’s independence while fearing for his physical and mental safety.

As a youthful representative of a vulnerable class, Charley brings hope from his travels. Like a Steinbeck wanderer, he trudges to a problematic future as he builds on his brief but illuminating early-life experiences.

Just listen to the Bonnie Prince Billy cover of R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” over the credits to catch his melancholy present and future, no longer leaning on Pete for survival.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at