‘Lean on Pete’ review: a gritty new film about a boy and a racehorse

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  • Jen Scouler gives her take on the gritty new film Lean on Pete, about a boy and a racehorse who set off on a transformative journey across the American West

    Films where horses feature as co-stars rather than as background extras are rare enough that all equestrians should definitely know about them.

    Lean on Pete is the newest addition, a quiet film about a boy and a racehorse set in Portland, Oregon.

    Directed and written by Andrew Haigh, who recently made the drama 45 Years, it won’t be suitable for all viewers but it does feature some excellent acting by both its human and equine cast.

    Focused on the serious subject of unseen poverty, it also understands the power of a bond with a horse, all in the well-researched setting of the amateur racing world.

    The plot

    Lean on Pete is a realist drama in all respects — the lead character is Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teenage boy who lives in diminished means. Raised by a single father, he takes up a role at a racecourse to work for taciturn trainer Del (Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi).

    There he meets a five-year-old quarter horse called Lean on Pete, whose ailing performance on the track could see him shipped for slaughter. In one last act of desperation, Charley escapes with Pete and the two outcasts set off on a transformative journey across the American West.

    The role of Lean on Pete is portrayed by equine actor Starsky in the quarter horse’s feature debut. Despite being new to the movies, Starsky is clearly very well-trained and he works effectively with the human actors. Before the month-long shoot, Charlie Plummer also went out to spend time with Starsky, ensuring that he spent some time getting comfortable around the horse to really sell his role as a stable hand.

    The film is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by American writer Willy Vlautin. During his time writing, Vlautin researched the racetracks around his native Portland, and bonded with an ageing racehorse that became the basis for Lean on Pete. That has translated to the film, where the races are rustic, the horses are accurate for the setting and the terminology is largely correct.

    Importantly too, there’s no miracle moment where a horse does something extraordinary. That doesn’t mean that cinematic entertainment of dramatic horse scenes isn’t good, but this representation of the racehorses as being sensitive and quirky to handle is believable. Lean on Pete and Del’s other racehorse Tumblin’ Through don’t have big heroic moments with Charley — instead, they react as highly-strung animals will often tend to do. Charley has to learn how to bond with them the hard way.

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    The verdict

    Be warned — this element of realism extends to the more difficult elements of keeping spirited horses. Some scenes are gruelling and shocking, so won’t suit those who are very sensitive to visual representations of horses in pain (albeit staged ones).

    That’s also the sort of thing that the trailer won’t tell you, so while a lot of horse lovers will enjoy the relationship between the boy and his horse, some may not be aware of how gritty the film actually is. It’s important to be prepared in this case.

    Lean on Pete isn’t just a horse film but also a difficult look at the shame of unseen poverty. Charley is living in difficult, painful circumstances and he reacts by running, much as Lean on Pete has done over and over in the starting box.

    To cope, the young boy finds a friend who won’t judge him, and who won’t curtail his small amount of freedom. In the end, it’s that link that gives Charley a small ray of hope in a film that reminds us of the importance of empathy.

    It’s not an easy watch and it’s not going to be a classic horse film, but Lean on Pete is definitely a film with a purpose.

    Watch the trailer

    Lean on Pete will be released in UK cinemas on 4 May 2018.

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