‘Lean on Pete’ review: Bales of heartbreak in Andrew Haigh’s soulful horse drama

‘Lean on Pete’

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny

Rated R

Playing at Angelika Film Center, City Cinemas Paris Theatre

Tear ducts, saddle up. Hearts, prepare to get to get broken. Charlie Plummer is coming to screens with “Lean on Pete” and this patiently paced drama of discovery works like a sharp spur to the feels.

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, whose resume includes the fantastic “45 Years,” “Weekend,” and a significant percentage of HBO’s “Looking,” maintains the close, quiet emotional tenor of his earlier films, but blasts the doors open to the gorgeous visual landscape of the Oregon high desert. This is still very much a performance-based movie, with Plummer working alongside great actors like Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Steve Zahn and Travis Fimmel, but set against the wide open spaces of a seldom seen America. He’s also got one other important scene partner: an old, beaten down horse.

Plummer’s Charley Thompson is an almost unfathomably open and good-natured teen. Charley lacks focus and is a little down in the dumps, but that’s largely due to being new in town. His father (Fimmel) had to move the pair of them into a dingy home to chase a new menial job. All they have to eat is breakfast cereal they keep in the fridge so the roaches won’t get to them.

Charley’s perambulations lead him to a horse track and its environs, where he meets Del (Buscemi), a low-rent horse owner on the fringes of the racing circuit. Charley is hired to do odd jobs and Del kinda-sorta becomes a mentor. Somewhere deep down he may still be a good guy, but the world’s harshness has made him a jaded scoundrel. Del’s most trusted jockey (Sevigny) is a little more life-affirming, but not by much.

“It’s over in like, two seconds,” Del warns Charley about the quarter races in which his horses compete, but it’s still enough to electrify the kid in a way we haven’t seen before. So you know immediately this isn’t going to go well.

The first horse Charley bonds with, the titular Lean on Pete, may have a lot of heart, but he’s got shoddy legs. It looks like it’s curtains for the ol’ trotter, so that’s when he and Charlie go on the lam. Charlie’s mother ran out on the family, never to be heard from again, and he can’t stay with his father. But he has good memories of an aunt that lives somewhere out there, if he can only track her down.

I’ve left out bales of heartbreak, but I want to leave some surprises that will shatter your soul. This is, apart from being an extraordinarily acted and photographed film, one meant to provoke what can only be called “a good cry.” It doesn’t take long until you are in the audience bargaining with the story, please, I’ll do anything, just let this good kid find some kind of happiness.

“Lean on Pete” is based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, whose book “The Motel Life” was adapted into a little-seen but good indie starring Emile Hirsch and Dakota Fanning. The peripatetic plotting makes you think “hey, I bet this was based on a book” even if you don’t know that fact, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that as Charley and Pete’s journey continues, other characters come into frame for only as long as we linger. This can often be a frustrating device, but in Haigh’s hands it makes for a rich and emotionally exhausting experience.

“Lean on Pete” makes a strong triptych with other person-and-animal road pictures like “Wendy and Lucy” (Michelle Williams and dog) and “Harry and Tonto” (Art Carney and cat). All three of these movies really get under the skin, but if some doofus who only likes action movies comes at you with “yeah, but nothing happens in these movies!” there isn’t much of a comeback. In terms of traditional plot, sure, nothing happens in these movies. That is, of course, if you consider the arc from elation to grief, disorientation to tranquility and loneliness to companionship as nothing. This isn’t a film for those focused solely on the finish line.