Lean on Pete is a heart-crushing examination on coming-of-age with loss and poverty

By Leigh Monson
   Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, as any young adult fiction writer can tell you. The dimensions of growing up are well known to all of us who have lived through it, and the only thing left to explore is the particulars, placing the specific circumstances of a young character's experiences under a magnifying glass and finding out what we can about a setting or a particularly life-changing event in how it can affect one's journey into adulthood. Lean on Pete, based on the Willy Vlautin novel of the same name, is an intense exploration of poverty and loneliness in the American West, and the result is harrowing as it is heartbreaking.
   Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) lives with his dad, moving around from town to town in pursuit of his father's newest job in a line of many that he just can't seem to keep. During his father's long absences, Charley fills his time with running around town, trying to find odd jobs when he discovers a horse track. He meets a trainer (Steve Buscemi) who offers him daily work managing his horses, and Charley starts to develop a bond with one horse in particular, Lean on Pete. However, as events in Charley's life start to spiral out of control – through no fault of his own – he finds that Lean on Pete is his only source of strength and comfort, and Charley takes it upon himself to ensure that Lean on Pete doesn't fall victim to an industry that runs racehorses into the ground.
   Based on that description, you might think this to be a fairly standard boy-and-his-animal story, with Lean on Pete acting as a catalyst for Charley's development into an adult man through care against a malicious world. Writer-director Andrew Haigh is fully aware of this conception and leans into it, developing a bond between Charley and Lean on Pete that doesn't require words so much as views of the pair in extreme isolation, depending only on one another for survival. Haigh films the stark landscapes of rural America with the boy and the horse acting as sole empathetic blips, and you want to root for them as the world turns against them again and again.
   However, the stroke of brilliance to Haigh's film is in how this isn't Lean on Pete's story, but almost solely Charley's. The horse is, after all, not a pet, as many a person reminds Charley, and the pain Charley experiences is something he must face on his own. The horse is little more than an empathetic crutch, and when fate finally conspires to separate the pair, the rug is pulled out from under us and we are forced to see Charley struggle on his own. The result is dark and unsettling, but also unflinching in its devotion to realistically portraying the depravity that dire circumstance and poverty force on people.
   Lean on Pete's third act goes on for perhaps a few beats too long, a fault that is shared with the source material, but on the whole this is a gripping take on what it means to lose one's childhood. It's a bleak, sad film that doesn't flinch at the harsh realities it explores, so don't expect to be uplifted by the experience or even to be transformed. But if you feel like mourning a loss of innocence with a horse by your side, this has the makings of a viscerally weepy afternoon.
4/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.