'Lean On Pete' Review: A Striking, Shattering And Altogether Sensational Journey

(This review originally ran during our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. Lean on Pete is in theaters today.)Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete is a social realist drama of the highest order, combining the gentle pastoral touch of David Lynch's The Straight Story with a probing sympathy for individuals on the edge of society recalling the best of the Dardenne brothers. There's no armchair sociology here, just rich character observation steeped in a spirit of compassion. Haigh never veers into grandstanding "issues movie" territory or troubled youth drama. It's just the story of an adolescent boy in need of the tiniest bit of permanence and security.

That boy is 15-year-old Charley Thompson, played by Charlie Plummer, a pure but restless soul hitched to the fortunes of his good-natured single father Ray (Travis Fimmel). When the film starts, the two are just getting settled into a new home in Portland, and Charley clearly has the routine down. He unpacks his trophies, goes for a run around unfamiliar streets to acquaint himself with the area and puts his Cap'n Crunch in the refrigerator to avoid the roaches. Charley is no hopeless, despairing victim – he's just stuck in a situation beyond his control. From a young age, he has already learned not to get sentimental and accept nothing as permanent.

But something changes in Oregon when Charley stumbles upon a horse paddock. A long-suppressed happiness and hopefulness reemerges, especially when he gets acquainted with the struggling equine named Lean on Pete. The horse, not unlike Charley, is caught in a difficult catch-22. Since Lean on Pete has foot issues and struggles to compete with the other racehorses, his owner Del (a weary, witty Steve Buscemi) rarely chooses to let Lean on Pete compete. And by not competing, Lean on Pete can never prove himself a winner, thus increasing his chances of being sold to Mexico – where he might be killed.

Without the slightest whiff of personification or anthropomorphism, a bond develops between Charley and Lean on Pete, unlike the usual cinematic connection between boy and animal. The horse does not exist to teach Charley some lesson about himself or life. He's an extension of Charley himself, an object onto which he can project some of the greatest aspirations he holds for an uncertain future. When he's with Lean on Pete, Plummer's smile is radiant enough to power all the stadium lights at the racetrack, which makes the slow disappearance of that grin even more devastating.

"You can't think of horses as pets," Chloë Sevigny's sapped racing veteran Bonnie tells Charley once she notices his attachment to Lean on Pete. She can sense the growing sentimentality he feels and seeks to brace him for the bitter disappointment ahead in life. Her warning might as well also extend to the audience for Lean on Pete as the film charts a course headfirst into the shame, uncertainty and desperation of homelessness and dislocation. Left with few options, Charley chooses to flee with Lean on Pete to chase the sense of security and comfort that eludes them both.

Haigh's concern in this section of the film has little to do with the material conditions of poverty and everything to do with the emotional impact of this wayfarer's lifestyle. It's a heartbreaking sight to watch that light in Charley's eyes get extinguished, just as it's devastating to watch him clench his fists like a foreign object, not recognizing his appendage after discovering its capability to inflict harm on others. Lean on Pete does take a few dubious plot turns as Charley spirals farther away from family and friends, mainly because they feel a touch out of place with Haigh's otherwise quiet, understated dignity. His film's moving empathy means that as Charley grows to view himself in little regard, our hearts swell larger with affection. It's a striking, shattering and altogether sensational journey.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10