Charley (Charlie Plummer) is 15 years old. Newly transplanted from Spokane to Portland, he lives with his dad. “Lives with” is about the best thing that can be said about the situation. While his father Ray cares about him, Charley is neglected. He is left to himself all day; there is rarely food available and he has no safety net of family, friends, or neighbors.
Charley finds a job helping Del, an older guy who lives check-to-check racing quarter horses. He doesn’t treat the horses well, putting his need for money before their need for rest between races. When a crisis comes up, Charley suddenly finds himself with no home to go back to. At the same time, Lean on Pete, the horse he has become attached to, becomes too injured for racing. The teen puts Pete in the trailer to move him as instructed, but he just keeps on driving.
What follows is a sort of quest, with Charley setting out to find an aunt he’s lost touch with. Along the way he passes through much of the magnificent American Southwest, with a two-edged sword of gorgeous vistas and brutal desert conditions for the travelers. Pete becomes the boy’s companion and confidant. Charley runs into others along the way who don’t have a settled place in society, including newly returned veterans, a young woman stuck in a difficult situation, and people who are homeless. He doesn’t reveal much about himself to others, but his grief and panic build, pushing him to do uncharacteristic things.
Like the horse he cares for, Charley is at the mercy of people who are putting other concerns ahead of his best interests. He lives on the margins, feeling like he is barely noticed and easily replaced. Charley’s eyes speak for him, pouring out his need, but he keeps the words to himself, putting up a stoic front.
Lean on Pete is carefully crafted and heartbreaking. It is a closely observed portrait of a young man who needs someone to care for and commit to him, to give him love, stability, and a sense of belonging. Strong language throughout and some brief moments of violence make this a movie for adults, but the story will reach the scared or lonely child each adult has probably been at some point, opening hearts to those who fall through the cracks of society—the orphans, the widows, the strangers who want to be invited in.
On disc and streaming now. (A24)