Monday, June 11, 2018

Lean on Pete (2017)

Like Wendy and Lucy, a movie it resembles in key ways, Lean on Pete is often very hard to watch. Lean on Pete is the name of a racehorse, though after his introduction he's always called Pete. Our hero Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a 15-year-old at loose ends in his life, and he does indeed come to lean on Pete. Charley has just moved from Spokane to Portland with his father, a drunkard and womanizer who is barely employed and not yet grown up. They keep cereal in the refrigerator because of cockroaches. You hear dogs barking and people shouting from their place a lot. Charley's mother disappeared years earlier and lives on only in disconnected details when people talk about her. Charley is on his own much of the time and through happenstance lands a job working for an aging horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi). That's where he meets Lean on Pete, one of Del's horses. In one of the most skillful scenes in a movie with lots of them, Charley's first look at Pete in a race sets the terms for his desperate love of the horse. It's not a healthy relationship and takes most of the movie to start getting better. Horses in human history have represented all kinds of things, freedom, travel, desire, even death. Director Andrew Haigh has made Pete all of that here. The animal itself doesn't have as much personality as the dog Lucy or even the donkey Balthazar, who is singularly a cipher. But it is amiable, vulnerable, and Charley, who is perfectly likable himself—and heroic in his circumstances—desperately needs something in the horse. Pete is also 5 years old and getting to the end of his racing career and Del is looking to sell him. At a certain point the movie veers sharply from how I was reading it, a coming of age story, and turns into an epic odyssey, with harrowing and unexpected turns and switchbacks. One in particular stands with the most shocking things I've seen in movies. And even that is not the end of this. The cashier I bought my ticket from laughed about Lean on Pete as one of the most downbeat movies that theater had shown in some time, and it's true enough. But it's also feels true always to Charley—the movie is about him, not the horse, and it tells his whole story. The ending is actually pro forma upbeat, whatever that cashier said. But you have to take more than a few steps through hell getting there. This is a great one. Remarkable performance from Plummer, a cast that is full of surprises, and a stone hard look at life itself the way we think we know it.

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