I’d rather them never see me again than see me like this.
Loneliness is a tough concept to cope with as a child, especially when it begins to seem as though you’re to blame. That’s hardly the case, though, since people who leave do so out of selfishness rather than “just cause.” You may think yourself cursed as a way to cope via laughter and many adults retain this mindset to turn jaded as a means of self-defense. But before that transition can occur, you’re another tragic adolescent left with the silence of isolation. You fill that void with anxious thoughts about what you did wrong as insecurities rear their ugly heads and depression arrives instead of cynicism. You believe yourself to be unwanted and disposable. Mistrust and fear render love a liability until you become the one who leaves.
It’s a cyclical pattern much like any other domestic psychological hang-up. No matter how hard we try to avoid becoming our parents, the future more often than not proves it’s impossible to stop fate. Just think about it. The easy advice anyone would give someone in this situation is literally, “Leave.” To escape is to both give in and fight, but having the courage to leave doesn’t necessarily guarantee the other side will prove better. So we lose ourselves in distraction instead: sports, jobs, and pets. We become like Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer), someone who accepts his immature and troubled father (Travis Fimmel‘s Ray) as more friend than guardian. We retreat into a mindset wherein we can do it alone despite wishing there was another way.
Andrew Haigh‘s Lean on Pete (adapted from Willy Vlautin‘s novel) looks to give this seemingly futile existence form by following Charlie as he strives to compensate for the hole in his life while risking his soul in the process. The film is two contrasting halves joined together—possibility and hopelessness. The first arrives with a glimpse of stability after the chaos of his mom leaving, his aunt (Alison Elliott‘s Margy) being excommunicated because of a fight, and Ray moving them to a new city. Finally his dad has found someone good from his revolving door of one-night stands and Charlie a haven of his own at the racetrack with tough but fair horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi). Then the second enters with tragedy and a need for self-preservation.
Both halves are crucial to the other through emotional cause and effect. But while we need the information in the first to understand the poignancy of the fall within the second (and the second to give meaning to the first), the whole does feel like two different films. I’ll admit to thinking it had ended two or three times before it did because my expectations were built around the relationship formed by Charley and the titular horse headed for the slaughterhouse that he seeks to free. Perhaps that’s on me because the film is ultimately about the lengths the boy will go to find the only person in this world he still believes he can trust to love him unconditionally, but the script didn’t do me any favors.
Thankfully Plummer’s performance transcends any such issues because we find ourselves fully invested in his Charley’s wellbeing. Whether it’s his quick decision to leave for the night with a stranger in Del to earn money and be around the horses, his ducking the authorities whenever tragedy strikes to risk his being given over to social services, or the arduous journey taken through the northwest deserts of America with only Pete to keep him company, we worry that he may never get his head above water again. Charley descends down a slippery slope towards criminality and violence because his survival relies upon his ability to make the hard choice and stay off the grid. He retreats within himself, losing his identity yet retaining his compassion and empathy.
Charley is sorry for what he inevitably does to remain on his two feet even if he’d do it all again without regret. In Pete is someone to protect once there’s no one to protect him. It’s as though saving the horse will replace the sorrow and disappointment he experienced throughout his life with everyone around him failing to put his security above their happiness. While they all eventually leave him physically or emotionally—it doesn’t matter what Del and his jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) think of him since they’ll never treat their horses as anything more than property—he makes a vow to never leave Pete. That responsibility isn’t one to hold lightly, though. Sometimes we can’t help doing things with pure intent that risk another’s safety.
To truly go it alone is to rely on total strangers with as much potential to help as harm. Steve Zahn is unforgettable in a brief yet potent role that could go either way while Teyah Hartley arrives as a mirror to show what his life might have been under other circumstances. It’s easy to say we have it rough when we don’t fully understand how bad things can get. No matter Ray’s failings as a father, he loves Charley without cruelty. He imbues the sense of compassion the teen needs to care for Pete—it doesn’t present itself from thin air. This is the difference between having to leave and simply leaving. There’s privilege in the latter that you may not acknowledge until long after the fact.
Lean on Pete‘s depiction of Charley’s perseverance and unyielding loyalty to the horse by his side (I don’t think the irony of his constant being literally attached to him is lost on Haigh) is great. We don’t necessarily watch him grow into a better man than his father, but one more familiar to him than not. I say this as a compliment because in many ways Charley and Pete’s relationship is similar to Ray and Charley’s. The tether is invisible, yet still as real. Just like Pete would run from the boy as soon as he lets go of the rope, Charley runs for the racetrack as soon as his father goes to work. He’s searching for something he’s lost, not something he never had—an important distinction to make.
This is why Charley can come back from his actions. He isn’t lost to desperation, just wielding it as a tool. The examples of this can get redundant (the second hour feels much longer than the first), but each is relevant in its own unique way. There’s a subtle escalation of danger from one to the next, his ability to escape them more or less unscathed the only part of the whole that risks inauthenticity. Charley is a scared kid acting on impulse despite there being better ways to handle a lot of what he does. But that’s why the film’s worthwhile. It’s the messiness of his quest and all its missteps that make him feel real. Rather than rebellion or ego, Charley is driven purely by hope.
 Charlie Plummer. Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24
 Charlie Plummer and Steve Buscemi. Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24
 Chloë Sevigny and Charlie Plummer. Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24