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'Lean on Pete' review: A horse story of a different, darker color

When we first see 15-year-old Charley Thompson, the human center of the devastating new film “Lean on Pete,” he’s jogging on the streets of Portland, Ore., a long way from the bohemian coffee bars and “Portlandia” cliches of popular culture. This is the other side of the tracks, the America all around us. Except on our screens.

Charley and his fond if unreliable father (Travis Fimmel) have recently moved to Portland from Spokane, Wash. Charley is waiting for school and for football season to start up again. His life is relocation, in persistent cycles. The house he and his father live in at the start of “Lean on Pete” does the job, barely. The lamps have no lampshades; the paper towel dispenser on the kitchen counter has no paper towel.

Gradually, the boy’s world opens up and then falls out from under him. In the film’s darkest passages, on a dangerous trek east to Wyoming, the taciturn young man played so simply and so well by Charlie Plummer endures a world of hardship that feels like real life, not movie life, and certainly not like a conventional movie about a boy and his horse.

What happens to this teenager, whose closest friend is an aging quarter horse near the end of his racing career, becomes a draining and often brutal experience. And yet “Lean on Pete” doesn’t bear down on the pathos. Based on the 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, a writer who also writes songs for his band Richmond Fontaine, the film comes from the British writer-director Andrew Haigh. He has that rare dramatic instinct: tact. Following “Weekend” (2011) and “45 Years” (2015), Haigh’s portraits of relationships at opposite points of a timeline, the filmmaker’s first American project puts you through it, humanely, reminding you without hammering the point: So many people live like this; some lives are like this, every day. And happy endings may simply be a matter of chance.

In “All the Money in the World,” Plummer played John Paul Getty III, and there he didn’t get to do much beyond dithering and panicking in reaction shots. The movie kept him at a remove, and inside a narrow interpretive box. “Lean on Pete” takes the lid off, and guided by Haigh, the actor seizes the day.

Early in the picture Charley spies a billboard in the background for Portland Meadows race track, an unglamorous relic. There Charley meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a brusque owner of “about six” horses, one of whom is a 5-year-old named Lean on Pete. This is not Mickey Rooney in “The Black Stallion”; this is a tough, hard-drinking, volatile man.

He’s also an opportunity for Charley, who gets $25 to help Del with an overnight trip to a nearby racecourse. The boy learns about horses, and a little bit about the shady methods (electronic “buzzing,” and illegal pills) Del deploys to get Lean on Pete to run faster. Chloe Sevigny is Bonnie, a sometime jockey who puts a good face on a tough life lesson for Charley: “There are only so many times you can fall off a horse and get up.”

Bonnie and Del remind the boy not to get “attached” to Lean on Pete; the horse is heading to Mexico for slaughter soon enough. But Charley wants to write his friend a different sort of ending. The film’s challenging, somewhat flawed second half transforms Charley from working-class kid with a father, a semi-stable life and some pocket money to a young man, on the edge of the abyss.

This is Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” for a new, harsher age, but with grace notes of humanity throughout. As photographed by Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, Haigh’s film allows strategic glimmers of sunshine to warm up the bleakly beautiful landscapes. Buscemi plays Del right down the middle between reluctant protector and indifferent tyrant. Once Charley meets the homeless mission denizen played by Steve Zahn, you may begin to wonder if you’re going to get out of this one alive, emotionally speaking. American movie audiences don’t like movies about “these sorts of people”; we prefer it when the poverty line is something to be crossed, and then crossed back the other way, the way Will Smith did on the road to bootstraps fame and fortune in “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

Like “American Honey” (2016), from another key British filmmaker, Andrea Arnold, “Lean on Pete” uses its young protagonist as a kind of search engine, looking for answers to his own fate and to the inequities at the heart of our nation. Each vignette in the story, each new set of minor characters, brings either grief or temporary solace to the main players. Some of these feel more schematic than others, and you may not fully buy the coda. But in the best way, this is a tough movie to shake, and while it believes in the kindness of strangers, “Lean on Pete” never forgets every other human failing, impulse and circumstance.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune


'Lean on Pete' -- 3.5 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language and brief violence)

Running time: 2:01

Opens: Friday


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