"You can't get attached to the horse." This sober advice, spoken to 15-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), immediately registers as "famous last words." The horse in question: a 5-year-old quarterhorse named Lean on Pete. And in fine literary and cinematic tradition, Charley's a goner for the majestic beast just like the audience of Andrew Haigh's new film "Lean on Pete."
Haigh has proven himself a keen observer of human behavior with his films "45 Years" and "Weekend," as well as the HBO series "Looking." Bringing these skills to an incisive adaptation of Willy Vlautin's novel, Haigh powerfully unfurls a coming-of-age story. Charley lives with his single dad Ray (Travis Fimmel) in Portland, Oregon following a recent move from Spokane, Washington that helps to explain the boy's rootlessness. Friendless and having lost track of the sympathetic aunt he longs for, the coltish Charley is distinctly prone to the unconditional love on offer from a majestic beast like Lean on Pete.
On a morning run, Charley discovers the aging racehorse at the Portland Downs racetrack, where gruff, profane trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) offers the boy employment. Del and Pete's jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) make up a casually unethical couple of convenience that imparts life lessons to Charley both intentionally and unintentionally. There's a touch of Dickens to the characters Charley meets on his picaresque journey and our dawning realization that he cannot rely on any adult in this treacherous world. What begins as a "boy and his horse" movie changes gears more than once, principally to a road movie that sends the human-equine pair on a search for security.
Haigh is a master of the quietly affecting drama, and he finds another terrific collaborator in Plummer, a subtle young actor nevertheless possessed of a highly expressive face. Plummer has that invaluable gift of conveying the unspoken inner life, and he's able to carry the picture through stretches where the only characters on screen are Charley and Pete, the former occasionally monologuing to the latter.
"Lean on Pete" recalls pictures like "Kes" and "The Black Stallion" in that it can be taken literally as a story of an animal-child relationship, but more importantly, the animal holds a mirror up to the human protagonist. In this case, we see how prone youth can be on the cusp of adulthood, how reckless when desperate or threatened, how vulnerably pure. It's a telling detail that the 15-year-old tells one character he's 16 and another that he's 18, graduating himself to the situation and others' perceptions to get by in the world.
"Lean on Pete" gets richer as it goes along, as well any film should. That partly owes to its novelistic origins, and partly to Haigh's immersion in the modern American landscape (which, in practical terms, cinematographer Magnus Joenck beautifully renders). Without judgment, Haigh checks in with patriotic veterans and soup-kitchen patrons, the less privileged denizens of our species' animal kingdom. In our own ways, we're all trying to survive out here, and we all need acknowledgment. We all need connection. We all need love. So go ahead. Get attached to the horse.