By Gregg Shapiro
Since his 2011 breakout movie “Weekend,” gay filmmaker Andrew Haigh has never ceased to surprise us. His acclaimed, albeit short-lived, HBO series “Looking” led to a 2016 movie of the same name that perfectly (and heartbreakingly) tied up any loose ends. In between the “Looking” series and movie, Haigh’s film “45 Years” was released to positive critical reception and earned lead actress Charlotte Rampling an Oscar nomination.
Where “45 Years”, a movie about the damage a long-held secret can inflict, was appropriately claustrophobic, Haigh’s latest offering “Lean On Pete” is as wide-open as the prairie, mountain range, and desert that Charley (Charlie Plummer) crosses to get to his self-imposed destination. Raised by his irresponsible single dad Ray (Travis Fimmel), after being abandoned by his mother as a child, 16-year-old Charley is definitely the adult in their household. A promising high school athlete (football and track and field), Charley relocates to Portland, Oregon from Spokane, Washington when Ray gets a job there.
Ray is the only relative with whom Charley has any relationship. He lost contact with Ray’s sister, his Aunt Margy (Alison Elliot), after the two adults had a falling out. Regardless, Charley carries a picture of him and Margy, from when he was much younger, in his pocket.
On one of his runs, Charley discovers a horse track. It’s there that he meets horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) who offers him a job. Charley’s a quick study and, even though he’s never worked with horses before, he develops into a good employee. Charley grows fond of one horse in particular, Lean On Pete. He’s also dismayed by the treatment of a few of the horses and takes it badly when he learns that some of the less healthy and fast horses are sent to Mexico for slaughter.
Just as some stability takes hold in his life, Ray is brutally beaten up by the husband of the married woman with whom he is having an affair. Charley is present when the attack occurs and is badly shaken by the experience and by realizing that his father almost died. With Ray in the hospital for an undisclosed period, Charley is now the only one earning a living, and his father encourages him to keep working. Del introduces Charley to Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), a jockey, who rides Lean On Pete to victory in a race. But it’s obvious that Lean On Pete is slowing down, and Del has no patience for that.
Just as things are going well for Charley, who travels around the region with Del, taking care of the horses, a series of unfortunate events start taking place. To begin with, Ray dies. Charley, who has been afraid to stay in their house alone since the attack, has taken to sleeping in the stables. This only increases his attachment to Lean On Pete.
When the horse loses an important race, his fate is certain. Del won’t listen to reason, and Charley does the unthinkable. He steals Del’s truck, along with the horse trailer with Lean On Pete inside. And, so begins Charley’s odyssey to find and reconnect with his Aunt Margy in Wyoming.
To say anything more would spoil the various occurrences that shape Charley’s life and the film itself. Young Plummer (who also played John Paul Getty III in “All The Money In The World”) is exceptional. He appears in almost every scene and is never less than completely believable as the teen on a journey to who-knows-where. This is not your average a-boy-and-his-horse movie, so it would be wise to be prepared for some of the more startling and upsetting moments.
“Lean On Pete” wins, places and shows. Rating: THREE AND A HALF PEACHES