Plot: Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a teen being raised by his father, as his mother left them and in the wake of that loss, his dad Ray (Travis Fimmel) has struggled to turn his good intentions into productive life choices. As he moves around with his father, all Charley wants is some stability, a real home to settle down in and a normal life, or at least close to normal. Of course, his father isn’t wired to make good decisions and lands in trouble often, including the latest fiasco, which finds him having an affair with his boss’ wife. Meanwhile, Charley is able to get some work and accompanies the grizzled Del (Steve Buscemi) to various horse races. His pay isn’t much, but appreciates the routine and as a little time passes, he starts to forge a surrogate father/son bond of sorts with Del. But at the same time, he doesn’t like how Del treats the horses and he begins to have a real connection with Lean on Pete. Pete is the latest horse to earn some cash for Del, but once the animal begins to slow down, Charley knows a horrific fate awaits and that weighs on him.
Entertainment Value: Lean on Pete is a movie with some impressive ingredients, from the beautiful visuals to a skilled cast, but despite a grounded, natural texture, it fails to keep that realism consistent. I like the premise and appreciate how it has that down to earth vibe, but the script just lets down the rest of the movie and in the process, dampens the entire experience. The story has a good premise and all the right elements are here, but the writers chose to push in some odd directions and ignore basic common sense, which is strange given the realistic atmosphere here. In some movies it wouldn’t be as noticeable, but the grounded texture is a prominent part of Lean of Pete’s charm, so it really stands out. When the movie focuses on the beautiful landscape shots and the intimate conversations, Lean on Pete works quite well, but then it shifts gears to follow Charley and falls apart. There is also some genuine, well earned emotion present here and that is no small feat, but it is also evidence of how much better this could have been, with a more natural script approach. As it stands, Lean on Pete is a solid watch, but feels like a lot of wasted potential.
While I think the segments that focus on his character are the weakest in the film, I have no issues with Charlie Plummer’s performance. He is able to convey the lack of world experience in Charley and that is crucial, given the way he behaves, I just wish the script made better use of his talents. Plummer is even able to keep pace with his costars and with this level of performers around him, that is a real compliment. The cast bring down to earth, grounded efforts across the board and that is what Lean on Pete needs, so it really benefits from that kind of approach. Steve Buscemi comes off as authentic as the cranky Del, with just enough rural texture, but he doesn’t turn the role into a redneck or backwoods hick. This holds true of Chloe Sevigny as well, who really shines in a role that I wish had more screen time. The cast also includes Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Lewis Pullman, and Julia Prud’homme.