Movie review: Charlie Plummer saves ‘Lean on Pete’

Despite being saddled with one too many metaphors, the boy-loves-horse parable “Lean on Pete” proves a winner, but only by a head. And that noggin belongs to Charlie Plummer, a young actor with an old soul. He’s the reason to see the latest feel-bad entry from Andrew Haigh (“Weekend,” “45 Years”), a writer-director with a knack for eliciting maximum performances. Still, what he does with Plummer is remarkable, but not as remarkable as what Plummer does with Haigh’s slow, meandering coming-of-age story about a teenager set adrift in a land of hopelessness and near zero opportunity.

Yes, like “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the prosaic “Lean on Pete” is yet another example of a UK filmmaker making critical judgments on how we Yanks treat each other. But unlike “Billboards,” this one often feels incomplete, a place-setter content with just scratching the surface on homelessness, neglectful parenting and children starved for affection. It’s as if Haigh is either too lazy to dig deeper, or too much an outsider to dig deep enough into the crippling nature of income inequality.

You’re often tempted to give up on it. But every time that’s in the offing, Plummer (“All the Money in the World”) rides to his rescue with a performance that might seem sparse on the outside, but is internally rich in detail. From the moment you meet his 15-year-old Charley Thompson, you’re empathy overflows for this gaunt, sad-eyed loner, a kid with a dream of a real home and family, but fully aware he’s already been tossed to the scrapheap of life by a mother who abandoned him and a father (Travis Fimmel) more interested in women and drink.

Then by chance, Charley meets Steve Buscemi’s Del, a generally heartless racehorse owner who hires Charley to assist him and his equally jaded jockey, Bonnie (a wonderfully understated Chloe Sevigny), in their travels on the quarter horse circuit in and around Portland, Oregon. The gig provides Charley with cash and a sense of pride. He finally feels like he belongs. And he’s found a devoted friend in Del’s washed-up 5-year-old nag, Lean on Pete. But don’t get too close, Bonnie warns, because these are racehorses, and if they stop winning, the next starting gate might be located in a Mexican butcher shop.

If you think you see where this is going, you’re only partially correct. As I mentioned, Haigh milks the metaphors from the name of the horse to the half-dozen people Charley encounters facing similar fates as Lean on Pete if they don’t start winning — and winning soon. For the first 45 minutes or so, Haigh establishes believable worlds were failure and despair prevails. But then he throws credulity to the wind, sending Charley and Lean on Pete on the lam through America’s vast, economically challenged Northwest.

Instead of riding Pete, Charley walks beside him for hundreds of miles, regaling the horse with his sad, pathetic life story, stopping only to commit a petty crime or strike up conversations with other marginalized people he meets along the way. The talk is involving, but it never rises above the level of a moralizing screenwriter. Haigh means well, but his dialogue often rings hollow. But you’re so invested in Plummer’s performance that you don’t really notice how slight “Lean on Pete” is until after the movie’s over.

Abetting Plummer are the terrific supporting turns by Buscemi, Sevigny and Steve Zahn as a hot-headed, alcoholic who offers Charley a temporary home during his long journey east in search of the estranged aunt he prays will offer him the family he so desperately craves. To Haigh’s credit, you’re always in doubt if he’ll ever get there, given the filmmaker’s track record of unhappy endings. And the points Haigh makes about the people left behind in our ever-changing economy have a resonance. But don’t be surprised if “Lean on Pete” strikes you as just a tiny bit lame.

“Lean on Pete”

Cast includes Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn and Travis Fimmel.

(R for language and brief violence.)

Grade: B

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