In Andrew Haigh's moving indie drama Lean on Pete, a motherless 15-year-old boy in Portland, Oregon, gets a part-time job caring for horses at the local racetrack and bonds with a five-year-old quarter horse named Pete; when the stallion begins losing and faces a trip to the glue factory, young Charley (Charlie Plummer) makes off with Pete and the two set out on a treacherous cross-country journey together. A quietly observant filmmaker, Haigh understands the need for connection: his breakthrough feature, Weekend (2011), traced a gay romance through its heady first days, and his acclaimed 45 Years (2015) gave Charlotte Rampling one of her best roles as a wife suddenly alienated from her longtime husband. Lean on Pete, adapted from a novel by Willy Vlautin, turns on the extraordinary connection between Pete and the silent Charley—who, in his emotional outlook, often seems more equine than human.
Certainly the boy has been treated like a horse for most of his life, led around by the nose from one place to the next. Charley's mother abandoned him when he was a child, and his good-timey father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), drags Charley from town to town as he searches for unskilled work. (A cardboard box full of athletic trophies sits off to one side in their kitchen, and in one scene Charley wears a T-shirt from a previous high school in Spokane.) Charley runs for exercise in the early morning, and one day he discovers the Portland Downs racetrack, which intrigues him (horses are naturally curious). When he returns the next day, he crosses paths with Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), an irritable horseman, who offers him ten bucks to help change a tire, then $25 to help transport a horse to another town for a race. Before long Del hires Charley as a part-time stable boy to look after his six racehorses, and Charley begins to learn his way around the business.
The more one sees Charley with the animals, the more one notices his innate sympathy with them. Horses love a herd, and Charley wants nothing more than to belong to a group; he enjoys the community at the racetrack and quickly fits himself into its routines and rhythms. Like a horse, Charley throws himself into a task, which impresses the cynical Del. ("See that, Bob?" he tells another horseman. "The kid's a natural. He ain't afraid of a day's hard work.") Most important, horses are prey animals, conditioned to defend themselves and inclined to see any threat as mortal. Their first impulse when threatened—an impulse Charley shares—is to flee. "Never let go of the rope," Del instructs Charley. "If you let go, he'll run on you." Haigh never shows Charley riding Pete, only walking alongside the horse, which cements the idea of them not as master and steed but as equals.
Even as Charley creates a new life for himself at the racetrack, his home life falls apart. An early scene shows him gratefully accepting a hot breakfast from the secretary Ray brought home the night before. Charley hasn't had a woman in his life since his mother left and Ray fell out with her sister, Margy. One awful night after Charley has hired on at the racetrack, the secretary's jealous husband shows up at their door, bursts into their home, and puts Ray through a window, impaling him on a shard of glass. This stomach wound leads to a bowel infection, and Ray spends days in the intensive care unit while Charley looks after himself, sleeping in the jockeys' room at the stable.
Trust figures heavily in Lean on Pete, because Charley and Pete are both so defenseless against the world. Every horseman knows that, to win a horse's cooperation, you need to convince it that you're looking out for its safety, and Charley understands this thoroughly: from the moment he meets Pete, he's all about the horse. The longer he works at the racetrack, though, the more he begins to understand that the horses' well-being is secondary. "Every horse is just a piece of shit," declares Del, who's spent decades in the business and once owned 20 horses. Charley strikes up a friendship with Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), the jockey who rides Pete, but she too turns out to be untrustworthy; after Pete wins a race, Bonnie confesses to Charley that she was using a device hidden under the saddle to give Pete an electrical shock.
The movie's turning point comes when Charley's father dies of his infection and Charley, hiding from his trauma at work, watches Pete lose on the track. Fed up with the horse, Del orders Charley to load Pete into the van so he can be sent away for good. But once Del lets go of the rope, Charley runs on him. After loading Pete into the van, Charley hops into the cab and drives off, indulging a vague plan that he will locate his aunt and rescue Pete from the slaughterhouse. Vlautin, author of the source novel, has cited John Steinbeck's memoir Travels With Charley as an inspiration (Charley was the writer's poodle), and as Pete and Charley make their way—first in the van and later on foot—from Portland to Aunt Margy's home in Laramie, Wyoming, Lean on Pete becomes a sort of American odyssey.
None of the characters Charley meets along the way registers as strongly as Del and Bonnie, but the relationship between Charley and Pete grows ever more poignant. As they trek across parched landscapes, Charley talks to the horse, opening up as he never has to any human character. He's haunted by his mother, confiding to Pete that she's never called or written since she ran away, and that he threw away his only photograph of her in a fit of anger. As the boy and the horse march over the cracked ground, they almost seem to be searching for that lost photo, on a race with no finish line. v