BFI LFF: Lean on Pete (2017)

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is an appealing coming-of-age road movie grounded in the all-American setting of quarter-horse racing.

Horse Sense

by Alexa Dalby

Lean on Pete

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Charlie Plummer gives a sensitive breakout performance as 15-year-old Charley Thompson, who lives with his wastrel father (Travis Fimmel) in a run-down house near a provincial horseracing track. Horses fascinate him and he picks up casual work with a curmudgeonly small-time quarter-horse (sprinter) owner Del (Steve Buscemi), who sees his potential and takes him under his wing. Del’s horses are all over-raced and one, Lean On Pete, nearing the end of his useful life and under threat of being disposed of if he doesn’t win again – Charlie feels very close to him.

Del and his jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) are unsentimental operators who warn Charley not to get too attached to a horse. But when Pete loses his last race, to save him from the knacker’s yard Charley heads off with him on a road trip across the unforgiving American northwest from Oregon to Wyoming, in search of the security and home life he misses.

The horse’s name is the clue – Lean on Pete is the emotional crutch the lonely, parentless boy needs. Charley can tell his innermost thoughts to the horse in a way that he can’t with any of the humans he comes in contact with and his longing for love and security is almost heartbreaking. Though he has no money, he’s very resourceful but he’s still only a boy and his attempts to cross the country have mixed success. On the way he is forced to lose some of his innocence in order to survive. The end of his journey, when it finally comes, is an all-too-sudden and almost anti-climactic resolution.

Andrew Haigh (45 Years) captures the unique American-ness of the quarter-horse circuit and its wheeler-dealing denizens, the culture of the big country’s roadside diners, down-and-out city life and most stunningly the wild beauty of the huge landscapes that Charley travels through.

Lean on Pete is an involving and moving coming-of-age story. Newcomer Charlie Plummer’s performance carries the film appealingly, and it benefits greatly from well-crafted performances from Buscemi and Sevigny. Haigh’s screenplay is based on the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin.

Lean on Pete premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is in the Official Competition at the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 5 and 6 October 2017.

Join the discussion