After debuting on the fall festival circuit at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, A24 held Andrew Haigh’s finely wrought drama Lean on Pete for the less-crowded period of April, even though there is no question it is as awards-worthy as many of those films that did find a release in 2018. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), I didn’t warm to this story simply because my name is in the title, though that helped make it a must-see when I caught up with it in Telluride. Actually, I greatly admired the authentic nature of Haigh’s previous films Weekend and especially the marital drama 45 Years, which earned Charlotte Rampling a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Haigh’s films are about people, human stories that are subtly told, heartfelt without dwelling in sentimentality, and movies that take their time to unfold and sneak up on you.

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The title of this film refers to a colt named Lean on Pete who needs a friend and finds one in a 15-year Charley (Charlie Plummer). And vice versa. Charley is a good kid living in tough circumstances. His mother abandoned him, and he is left to live with a father (Travis Fimmel of Vikings) who loves him but otherwise is so screwed up that he can’t be much help. One day Charley comes upon grizzled horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and Lean on Pete, who is one of a number of horses in his stable. He offers Charley the chance to help him out as he takes his horses to yet another fair a few towns over. This leads to a job and a new relationship with this horse who, like Charley, could use a good break. Sadly the horse isn’t up to snuff for Del, who has no sentiment at all toward his animals and regularly sends them to a Mexican chop house if they don’t perform.

Charley takes matters into his hands and walks off with Lean on Pete, drifting from place to place, horse in tow. They need to save each other. Along the way he has an unfortunate encounter with a guy named Silver (Steve Zahn) and others, but the only ray of hope he got was from Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), a jockey who offers some path toward the light. Basically, though, this becomes a very unique boy-and-his-horse story, one that unflinchingly focuses on a young man who’s a bit lost and looking for his way in life, the kind of guy we might just walk right by and never notice if it wasn’t for that horse right by his side. This is a rich character study, and Plummer — very fine as J. Paul Getty III in last year’s All the Money in the World — is excellent, inhabiting the heartbreaking world of this kid as if he lived it himself. The rest of the cast does fine work as well, but this film belongs to the kid and the horse, who is appealing in his own right.

Haigh based his script on the 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin and — with the help of shooting on the actual Portland, OR, locations — gets it exactly right. Those sensitive to animal violence might be warned that Haigh also doesn’t hold back from realism in that regard, but it doesn’t feel contrived or exploitative at all. Tristan Goligher produced, and A24 opens it today in limited release.

Do you plan to see Lean on Pete? Let us know what you think.