Directed by Andrew Haigh and based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” starts strong as a sensitive, sympathetic story but mid-way begins to slide downhill.
Steve Buscemi makes an impression as the tough-as-nails Del Montgomery, owner of race horses, including Lean on Pete, a quarter horse that has seen better days. Pete’s terrain is second-class tracks and when a horse can no longer make it, he doesn’t think twice about selling it.
Into his life comes 15-year-old Charley Thompson, played appealingly by Charlie Plummer, who has had a difficult time in a hardscrabble upbringing. He and his struggling and distant father Ray (Travis Fimmel) come to Portland, Oregon, seeking a new start in life. Likable Charley is given a job by the skeptical Del, who is harsh and demanding in breaking him into the stable assistant routine.
Working with Del is his long-time jockey Bonnie, played by Chloë Sevigny. Despite her customary solid acting, she looks much to tall for a jockey, as well as not lightweight enough. If you can believe her as a jockey, good luck.
Charley begins to get attached to Lean on Pete despite Del’s advice never to get too fond of a horse. There is warmth to the film as we watch Charley gain self-confidence and be able to be independent of his father’s problems. And his affection for Lean on Pete is touching. When he learns that Del is going to sell him, Charley gets deeply upset. His solution is to steal Lean on Pete and go off with him.
What happens next becomes increasingly unbelievable—Charley wandering about with the horse and trying to lead it to a country space where they can live happily ever after. The situation grows increasingly difficult and the film founders with improbabilities. We know at the outset that it can’t end well, although for Charley it will at least turn out to be a learning experience. An A24 release. Reviewed April 6, 2018.