Lean on Pete takes its name from a rundown racehorse that, at first, looks like it will provide a familiar emotional foil for a 15-year-old boy as his life falls apart in rural Oregon. This is a pleasing mode we know well: a child, failed by humans, finds companionship and maybe his future with the help of a loyal, seemingly understanding beast. For a while, Lean on Pete looks to fall nicely into this rhythm. But it is all a ruse. This is not a movie about a boy and his horse. It is something far more grueling and merciless, and as the film reveals itself in an increasingly jaw-dropping series of vignettes, it’s likely to leave you in tatters.
Not everyone likes a movie that sneaks up on them, so be advised that Lean on Pete is the ugly-cry event of the spring. But it more than earns its emotional ravages. It opens as the boy, Charley (Charlie Plummer), sets out to find work to support himself and his absent, heavy-drinking father. He winds up at a ramshackle stable managed by a man (Steve Buscemi) whose avuncular qualities barely mask a dark side. Not long into his tenure, Charley becomes enchanted by the titular steed, especially as a violent incident at home leads him to take residence at the stable. In an early sign that this is a very different kind of entry into the boy-and-his-furry-companion genre, Pete has only a very horselike interest in Charley, namely when it comes to feeding and tender pats. He’s hardly anthropomorphized. After the first of the film’s many, many devastating events, Charley figures out what happens to racehorses when they no longer win, and he takes dramatic action to save his “friend.”
I am being vague here on purpose, but it’s fair to say Charley’s journey neither begins nor ends where it would in another movie. In a series of encounters with people on back roads, in the desert, and on vicious city streets, Charley’s quixotic rescue mission quickly takes on a harrowing realism. He meets abused granddaughters, newly returned veterans, homeless alcoholics, and plenty of authorities, and each new experience morphs into a haunting examination of America’s fringes and the people who inhabit them. The movie’s eager, gentle energy becomes sparer and more unforgiving as it goes along. If you think it can’t get worse, wait 10 minutes.
But Lean on Pete isn’t a slog. Instead, it slowly becomes a riveting chronicle of survival. Its power comes from writer-director Andrew Haigh’s restraint: He depicts terrible things affectlessly, free from sadism or formal intrusion. Working from Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name—fans of which already know what they’re in for—Haigh grounds the steadily more agonizing story by keeping his focus on what Charley is experiencing at any given moment. As the film takes us from star-capped frontier panoramas to squalid urban trailers, Haigh and Danish cinematographer Magnus Joenck focus on Charley in nearly every frame, so that his desperation becomes ours. Haigh remains most famous for his much-loved gay romance Weekend and his somewhat less-loved HBO series Looking, but here he returns to a mode more familiar from his Oscar-nominated 2015 drama 45 Years: observational, stoic, but also quietly tender. It’s as if it pains him to show us what happens to Charley, even as his camera declines to look away.
Which brings us to Plummer, an 18-year-old actor challenged with playing a teenager who can’t let anyone see what’s really happening to him. In a movie that shuns melodrama and easy release, Plummer does most of the work in his face, where his shifting expressions suggest a wily interiority. The film’s Pacific Northwest milieu and scenes from the edge already recall Gus Van Sant, and Plummer somewhat spookily evokes one of Van Sant’s early muses, River Phoenix, particularly the late actor’s circa–Running on Empty era of boyish vulnerability and haunted adolescence. At one point, their likeness had me straining into the screen for a closer look. It’s hard to imagine Haigh didn’t make the connection himself, and it’s a lofty ghost to conjure, but Plummer proves himself a worthy doppelgänger.
Lean on Pete begins and ends with Charley running, bookends that suggest a story that remains in progress. Though we see a glimmer of possibility in the final scenes, it isn’t clear what will happen to him. And it speaks to Lean on Pete’s transformative power that his forward motion in itself feels like a happy ending.