“Lean On Pete”

 

            There are few things sadder than kids who fall into isolation because of the neglect and/or absence of parents.  Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is one of those kids.

            We meet Charley as a teenager who just moved from Spokane to Portland with his Dad, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who not only found some work, but also someone in the office to mess around with.  He doesn't worry that she's married.  He figured her estranged husband, an infamous big Samoan, would never find the house.  So he opens another can of daytime beer and refuses to worry about anything. Charley's Mom left home a long time ago.  His Dad had re-married, once, but she left, too, when she discovered his affair.

            Charley, on a jog around the new neighborhood, discovers a small horse racing track, and while he's exploring, some random guy calls him over to ask for help changing a flat.  Before he knows it, Charley is employed by a horse trainer, Del (Steve Buscemi), who's apparently not averse to feeding his horses special “vitamins” before a race.  And he's always got the truck and the trailer positioned for quick getaways.  While with Del, Charley meets Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), sometime jockey, who warns Charley not to treat the animals like pets; they're just horses.  Don't get attached.

            But that's exactly what happens to Charley.  He develops an affection for “Lean On Pete,” the quarterhorse who was really fast once, but now is at the end of his usefulness to Del.  Charley travels with Del and Bonnie to a couple of other racetracks in nearby towns, but his Dad hardly notices, since he's been a bit preoccupied lately.  Until he receives a surprise nocturnal visit from the big Samoan, who throws him through a plate glass door, cutting open his stomach, and Ray is rushed to the hospital.

            Ever the macho man, Ray tells Charley not to worry, go on about his business, in fact, now Charley needs to really concentrate on working at the track, because Ray is going to be laid up for a while.  But the more Charley travels the “shadow circuit” of pastureland race tracks, the more he realizes that Lean On Pete is headed for the slaughterhouse (“sold to Mexico”).  When Charley at last returns to the hospital, only to find that his father has died from sepsis, he runs away with Lean On Pete, stealing Del's truck and trailer.  He thinks he's headed toward Wyoming, where his ex-stepmom, Margie, lives.  The last Charley heard, she was working at a bar in Rock Springs.  So he heads in that general direction, but along the way, he runs out of gas, runs out of money, then the truck breaks down. Charley is forced to beg, borrow, and steal, and occasionally work some day jobs.  He stumbles into a homeless camp, where they show him where the Soup Kitchen is, but they also teach him a thing or two about street treachery.  Charley finally finds out that his ex-stepmom has re-married and moved to Laramie, and that she works in a library.  So Charley sets out once more on his lonely pilgrimage, uncertain if Margie will even be there, or if she is, how she'll react when she sees him.

            It's a long, lonely trudge through the American underlife, where people don't keep records, pay in cash, don't pay taxes, and try to stay off anybody's search engine list.  There are no computers or cell phones in this shadowy underground.  Just desperate people sometimes driven to do desperate things.

            We root for Charley, because he begins as such a wide-eyed innocent kid, earnest and hard-working.  We hope that he can regain some semblance of normalcy, as if he ever knew much of that, or would recognize it if he saw it.  We hope that there aren't too many other Charleys out there.  But we're afraid there are, and we'll never see them because we aren't looking for them.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association