What’s better than a story about a man and his dog? A story about a man and his horse. Er, a boy and his horse, in the case of “Lean on Pete,” the most recent film from the burgeoning powerhouse that is A24 and director Andrew Haigh. Adopted from the novel of the same name, written by Willy Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” tells the story of working-class, 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer, “Boardwalk Empire”) who has just moved to Portland, Oregon with his single father and is looking for work. “Lean on Pete” is at once a coming-of-age story and gut-punching drama that forces its protagonist to grapple with problems that most people will never have to face. Above all, though, it never glamorizes its characters’ troubles or inflicts trauma without intention. “Lean on Pete” reminds audiences how strong the desire for self-preservation can be.
The film begins simply: Charley alone in his house, hearing through a door the sounds of his father and his girlfriend having a flirtatious chat in the bedroom. He leaves to go run, presumably used to his father’s behavior, and discovers Portland Downs nearby. There’s a magnetic connection. Charley goes to work for Del (Steve Buscemi, “Neo Yokio”), a racer who owns the eponymous horse, to make a little money. With it, he buys food, which reveals the family’s financial need. Haigh illustrates how Charley’s literal hunger, a recurring problem in the film, motivates almost all that he does. There are multiple scenes involving food that serve as punctuation for Charley’s journey: His home kitchen, the restaurant at the tracks and the gas station where he steals a map and a pastry wrapped in plastic.
Although “Lean on Pete” does do good work with basic wants and needs in its beginning third, it can occasionally feel robotic. Scenes involving more than two characters are stiff and staged, and they stick out in a film that is so good at capturing the emotional experience of a person alone. This is evident when Charley has to interact with both Del and jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny, “The Snowman”) in the same scene. The dialogue seems uneasy, as if the film knows that it’s about Charley’s internal experience.
Once past its first third, however, “Lean on Pete” blossoms in to a journey of survival and self-discovery, as Charley goes on a quest to find his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott, “20th Century Women”). En route, he is forced to make some difficult decisions, some of which lead him to lie, steal and harm others. By the same token, his motives are pure — he’s looking for safety and comfort in a dangerous world. The film, however, never places a moral judgment on Charley’s actions. It never strays from emphasizing Charley’s will to complete his task.
Above all, Charlie Plummer gives a performance that borders on greatness. Plummer’s ability to convey Charley’s vulnerability and resilience is never cartoonish or ham-handed, and he knows exactly when to channel which trait. The film’s emphasis on Charley’s interiority requires an actor that can display a wide range of experience, and Plummer is up to snuff. Without him, the film could have fallen prey to overdramatization or sentimentality. “Lean on Pete” keeps its focus tight, demanding its audience to witness the tenacity of the human spirit.