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By Megan Bianco
When you think of horse movies, naturally the first ones likely to come to mind are the uplifting family classics like National Velvet (1944), The Black Stallion (1979), Seabiscuit (2003) or Secretariat (2010). When I first saw the trailer for Andrew Haigh’s new feature Lean on Pete, an adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel with the same name, I thought I was going to get a horse drama with an ultimately optimistic tone.
I was wrong. Lean on Pete is by definition a downer. Not to say the trailer was misleading, with the exception of maybe the featured music, but Haigh’s movie is not one for the avid horse lover. And definitely not for families with kids (as the R rating should indicate).
That said, the film is hopefully going to be remembered by the end of the year as one of the best independent movies of 2018. Haigh first broke through in 2011 with the critically acclaimed gay romance Weekend, and then released another critical darling in 2015 with 45 Years, once again a romance, but this time focused on an elderly married couple played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.
Lean on Pete doesn’t have any sort of traditional romance, but does have a teenage boy named Charley (impressively portrayed by Charlie Plummer) looking for someone to love him as a parental figure or friend, and he finds it in the local racehorse named “Lean on Pete.” Travis Fimmel plays Charley’s sleazy, white trash single father, and Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny are the horse owner and jockey who employ Charley. Charley and Pete become close when the boy discovers the horse is going to be sent to Mexico, which results in Charley kidnaping the horse and going cross country on foot with Pete to find his aunt.
This is all well and good, and with most horse movies the stakes aren’t very high—or they are high, but almost always guaranteed a happy ending. Lean on Pete just drags you down with every misfortune Charley experiences on his journey until the last minute of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is still great. Haigh’s direction and Plummer’s performance flow fluidly together, and Haigh trusts Plummer enough as a lead to let him carry every scene on his own.
The teen actor has already had some recognition with the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (2011-13) and All the Money in the World (2017). He definitely shows the potential to be the next breakout actor in independent cinema. There are some sequences where we just get long stream-of-consciousness monologues while Charley is walking with Pete, or a scene in a diner where the entire sequence is a one long closeup on Plummer without any reaction shots from the other actors, that really express how intimate the story is.
Horse enthusiasts should be warned, there are a couple of seriously intense moments with the horse, although clearly with special effects. Still, while naturally everyone who will be going to the movies this month will be at the theater for Avengers: Infinity War, Lean on Pete is for the small percent of film fans who prefer to appreciate well-structured indie features with somber tones.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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