Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a motherless 15-year-old Portlandian whose sweet disposition is rather at odds with his hardened circumstances. His immature father struggles to put food on the table and has, we quickly learn, made dangerous enemies.
Charley's only known relative is an aunt who may or may not be in Canada. The boy's sole and small ambition is to stay on at high school long enough to make the football team, but even this tiny dream looks doomed.
One day, Charley happens upon a local racetrack, a circuit so low-rent that Charles Bukowski might have turned his nose up at it. Here, he meets the shifty, whiskeyed-up horse owner Dell (Steve Buscemi) and his world-weary jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny).
Bonnie repeatedly warns the boy not to get too attached to Lean on Pete, the ill-starred racehorse of the title. But it’s already too late. Charley has not only befriended the unlucky beast, he has made the horse a silent, ear-twitching therapist with whom he shares every secret. When Dell announces that the horse is to be sent to a Mexican slaughterhouse, Charley and his equine chum head north, in hope of finding freedom and Charley’s long-lost aunt.
Don't expect National Velvet.
In a post-Trumpian moment when even the Wim Wenders generation has given up on Americana, trust the gifted Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) to reinvigorate the hard-bitten, neo-western road trip.
The spirit of Sam Shepard lives on in this unsentimental coming-of-age tale, an unvarnished fable that falls somewhere between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath.
The vast and often lonely landscape Charley traverses dwarves and boxes the youngster with a 1:85 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Magnus Joenck never lets the viewer forget that for all the miles stretching out before the boy and his horse, this is a world of limited possibilities.
Lean on Pete, which is adapted from Willy Vlautin's novel of the same name, is populated by careworn and callous people. Except for Charley. Following on from a series of arresting turns in Boardwalk Empire, King Jack, and The Dinner, Plummer secures his reputation as the most impressive young actor of his generation. His Charley undergoes various trials and learns unpleasant truths, but never loses his capacity to believe the best of others.
Director Haigh makes it three emotional knockouts in a row.