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A Boy and His Not-Dog

Lean on Pete tells a tale of growing up alongside a horse.

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Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete - A24 FILMS
  • A24 Films
  • Charlie Plummer in Lean on Pete

The thing about "a boy and his dog" stories—whether in literary or filmed form—is that there's no reason the boy has to be a boy, or the dog has to be a dog. Sure, plenty of them have been literally about relationships between a male youth and a canine, but those specifics don't define the central story arc. Maybe the dog is an orca, like in Free Willy. Or maybe the dog is an alien, like in E.T. They're stories about emotionally isolated youngsters from families in upheaval, where the connection to some other living thing becomes a lifeline. When you can't count on anyone else, you can count on Man's Best Friend, whatever species form it might take.

In Andrew Haigh's adaptation of the Willy Vlautin novel Lean on Pete, it takes the form of a horse. Sixteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is recently relocated with his single father Ray (Travis Fimmel) to Portland from Spokane, and at loose ends during the summer as Ray either works or finds a woman to hook up with. At a nearby racetrack, Charley meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a small-time horse trainer who offers him work. That job includes caring for Lean on Pete, a 5-year-old quarterhorse who might be reaching the end of his useful racing life.

Haigh dives right into the world of penny-ante horse racing, providing a compelling foundation for Charley's story. Chloë Sevigny eventually turns up as a hard-luck jockey, and Lean on Pete explores a far-from-glamorous world of middle-of-nowhere sprint races and people making a living one race at a time. Where many films would build drama into the results of individual races—especially ones where the horses involved might actually be racing for their lives—Haigh is content to observe a milieu that feels fully lived-in.

That milieu changes, however, when Ray is incapacitated by a jealous husband, and Charley takes to the road for Wyoming with Lean on Pete, attempting to track down the only other family he knows of, Ray's estranged sister Margie. That odyssey finds Charley sharing his thoughts with the horse he refers to simply as Pete, opening up a heartbreaking story of being abandoned by an emotionally unstable mother, and envying the happy family of a friend back in Spokane. Nearly the entire final hour of Lean on Pete depends on Plummer's performance as Charley grows increasingly desperate, so it's fortunate that the young actor—whose previous highest-profile role was the kidnapped Getty heir in All the Money in the World—conveys both the toughness that comes from not being able to rely on anyone else, and the fact that he's still a kid longing for some kind of stability.

What emerges through Charley's episodic wanderings is a tale of what happens when those who are responsible for taking care of someone—or something—just aren't up to the task. Charley connects with Pete not just because he thinks of him as a pet, but because of the cavalier way Del treats him as an income source, pumping the horse with drugs or prodding him with electric shocks if that's what it takes to get a win. Later, Charley stops for the night at a house where a girl is verbally abused about her weight by her grandfather, and reveals that she tolerates it because she has nobody else. Haigh repeatedly finds ways to capture that sense of alone-ness visually, whether it's watching Charley and Pete trudge through scrub brush, or identifying Charley's location by a single small lantern under a vast starry sky, and recognizing the darkness that surrounds him as soon as he turns that lantern off.

Lean on Pete's narrative takes several unexpected turns, and anyone familiar with Vlautin's work—or the previous film adaptation of one of his novels, The Motel Life—won't be surprised that his study of people living on the fringes of society gets uncomfortable at times. But throughout the frequent silences of Haigh's film, there's a simple quest for connection, for feeling needed and feeling like someone has your best interests at heart. The boy in this "boy and his dog" story doesn't technically have a dog, but by the end, it's also clear he has to grow up too fast to still be a boy.

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