STARS: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh
I once read a review by a prominent film critic who was so disgusted by the ending of Pay It Forward that he revealed the ending in the review, reasoning that what happened was a cheap and shitty thing to do to viewers who had invested their money and emotional energy into something that up to that point had been an uplifting experience, and that they were better off knowing. I'm about to do something similar here, though I'm not revealing the ending...just the ending of my caring anything about what happens in this film from that point forward.
Imagine if King Kong were not about a gorilla, but more about one of the Skull islanders who threw bananas at him from afar, and the gorilla was just incidental to the story...a prop, basically. You'd wonder why the hell they named the movie King Kong, now wouldn't you? And you might be pretty pissed at the film makers for the misleading way they advertised the movie to get gorilla lovers to fill the seats. That, in essence, is Lean On Pete, purportedly a story about a boy and his horse. It's not. It's a violent, mean-spirited film masquerading as a lyrical tale about a boy and a horse. The horse is just incidental to the story--expendable not only to the cold-hearted racing industry that uses the animals up and then sends them off to the glue factory when they no longer make money for the owners, but expendable to the plot of this film as well. And I don't consider my revealing this a spoiler so much as a public service for animal lovers and parents with children who love horses. This is not your kind of movie!
Charlie Plummer is Charley Thompson, the Oregon teenager who gets hired on as a stable hand for a grizzled, cynical trainer of the low-rent quarter horse racing circuit, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi). Lean On Pete is the name of the horse Charley takes a shine to. Despite repeated admonitions to not get emotionally involved (good idea for you too), Charley is crestfallen when he learns Del is about to sell Pete and that the horse will end up in Mexico and become dog food. Charley loads Pete into the trailer and takes off, embarking on a cross-country odyssey, roaming through picturesque fields that make for some great cinematography. He's trying to find his estranged aunt, who lives somewhere in Wyoming, and maybe have a place to call home.
It is here where the film breaks the covenant with viewers who are expecting something more than just killing off characters for convenience. (Charley's dad dies earlier in the film as well.) Killing off characters is the easy way out if you don't know what to do with them. What's hard is bringing their screen time--synonymous with their time on this earth--to some sort of existential vista where they, and the viewer, can gaze back from and ponder how it all fits into the what's-it-all-about-Alfie narrative of their life.
In fairness, the film makers were just being faithful to the 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, so they're not responsible for the plot elements. What they are responsible for is the graphic, jarring and manipulative way they showed Pete making his "exit," which comes about two-thirds of the way through the film. After which, as stated above, I cared not a whit about what happened the rest of the way--just sat through it because I was going to review it.
Still, this is a hard one for me to grade. Because there are good turns here from the young Plummer, who gives an understated performance that makes him seem real. And Steve Buscemi, demonstrating the versatility of his acting chops as the crusty trainer. And the film should maybe win an award for sound editing, because when those quarter horses come thundering past you, it puts you right there. I'm torn between what I want to give it on a heart level and what I want to give it on a head level. So I'll average the two out.
Well, readers. Get ready for some big disagreements. Lean On Pete is a film about survival. And the title is both the name of a racehorse and a metaphor for Charley's journey. Yes, I assumed when I entered the movie theater, that I'd be seeing a grittier version of My Friend Flicka. But even as the stark opening credits rolled and the unfamiliar production company announced itself, I knew it wasn't going to be a kiddies' film.
There are so many unexpected twists and turns in Lean On Pete that I defy even the most knowledgeable film goer to predict any of them in advance. Because they were so unpredictable, I actually felt like I was experiencing them along with Charley. (Not an altogether pleasant feeling but certainly an engrossing one.) The kid who played Charley was brilliant. Since his last name is Plummer, I wondered if he was any relation to Christopher. No, he isn't. But he did play John Paul Getty's grandson in All The Money In The World. (The other Plummer played Getty Sr.)
The rest of the cast was also excellent. Steve Buscemi...Chloe Sevigny...and especially Steve Zahn, as a homeless psychopath. Reality was rampant in this nugget of a film Whether witnessing PTSD victims at their very worst. Or the smarmy side of horse racing. I was hooked -- like a morbid onlooker at the scene of a car crash.
Another disagreement with Tim? I thought the sound editing sucked. Too loud in places, inaudible in others. But a minor criticism. On the whole, I really liked this movie. My subtitle for Lean On Pete? (It ain't The Kentucky Derby....)