At the Edinburgh Filmhouse until Wed 9 May 2018
Lean on Pete follows Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teen living with his single father, who initially finds work caring for an aging racehorse named Lean On Pete. When Charley discovers from crusty owner Del (Steve Buscemi) and jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) that Pete is destined for the slaughterhouse, he escapes with the horse and embarks on a journey to Wyoming to find his estranged aunt.
The narrative develops in an interesting (if disjointed) manner, with Charley’s befriending of the horse and his mentor-student relationship with Buscemi initially promising a slightly grittier take on traditional Hollywood films such as National Velvet and The Black Stallion. Following the death of Charley’s father and his subsequent escape with Pete, the film takes a left turn and becomes a road movie, with Charley and Pete encountering various characters on their journey who are equally troubled. All the while Charley relates his difficult upbringing to the horse, accompanied by visually-striking cinematography from Magnus Joenck that highlights the vast landscapes of the American Midwest.
Whilst this transition takes the film out of well-executed but cliched territory, it does result in an abrupt switch between narratives and characters that takes a while to adjust to. Despite this, the film is effective due to the skilful writing and characterisation that fleshes out Charley and his relationships with the supporting characters without any of the dialogue seeming forced. A good example of this can be seen in Charley’s conversations with Pete about his childhood and relationship with his aunt, which in the wrong hands could come across as an example of forced character motivation but instead becomes a representation of a teenager expressing his problems to the only thing that will listen to him.
The effectiveness of the film is helped by its performances, with Plummer convincingly portraying Charley’s growing relationship with Pete as well as his own growing frustration and vulnerability as he struggles to find work and live independently on the run. Buscemi also provides Del with a grizzled charm reminiscent of Burgess Meredith‘s boxing trainer Mickey in the Rocky films. Sevigny and Steve Zahn as a fellow vagrant Charley meets in Wyoming also provide depth and nuance to their brief appearances.
Overall, Lean On Pete is a well-made drama that shows how a simple relationship between a teenage boy and a horse can reveal greater depths.