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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Lean on Pete is a rich, deeply moving drama based on Willy Vlautin's novel about a down-on-his-luck teen (Charlie Plummer) and the horse he becomes attached to. While the movie has plenty of strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," and more) and occasional bursts of realistic violence (a fistfight, a mugging/retaliation, a car-caused fatality), as well as a bit of drinking, it's really the story's themes and their intensity that make it too mature for younger viewers. Charley is truly put through the wringer, experiencing several traumas and ending up forced to fend for himself in a cold, frightening world. But for viewers who can handle the subject matter, it's ultimately a positive film with a lot to say about perseverance and the human condition.
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What's the story?
In LEAN ON PETE, Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a 15-year-old living on the edge of abject poverty with his loving but ne'er-do-well dad, Ray (Travis Fimmel), in Oregon. Charley is often on his own; during some of his explorations, he comes across a racetrack and starts working for shady trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and with an already world-weary female jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny). Charley develops a close, perhaps unwise attachment to one of the horses, Lean on Pete. When Charley's world is turned upside down, he embarks on a desperate journey in search of some kind of home.
Is it any good?
This film is a traumatically beautiful drama that's surprising in a low-key way; it's moving and haunting. The unconventional way the plot unfolds is one of Lean on Pete's great virtues, so to describe it in too much detail feels wrong -- but it's important to note that child poverty and homelessness are central to the story. These themes are dealt with head-on, sometimes brutally. There will be inevitable comparisons to The Florida Project, but perhaps not since Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's City of God or Hirozaku Kore-eda's Nobody Knows has there been so affecting a portrait of kids struggling to survive on their own. Unlike those films, however, Pete's protagonist has no one to turn to. He's truly alone.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh (45 Years) is definitely one to watch. You might expect the story of a boy and a horse on a journey to be sentimental, but Pete never comes close to earning that description. Haigh's unadorned style sinks viewers into story and character. There are no sweeping camera moves, no swelling strings to tell us how to feel or give us distance from Charley's struggles. In fact, there's barely any score at all. Something as cinematically ordinary as a fistfight has real consequences. There is some humor; it comes from recognition. And while there are "name" actors in Pete, their performances are almost all impressively grounded. Buscemi's introduction gets a laugh because Del's language and attitude are what we've come to expect from him, but the rest of the way, he just is his character. Like most people in the film, Del is neither good nor bad. Sevigny and Steve Zahn turn in similarly unadorned work that's a perfect fit for the film's world -- which is a high compliment. With deceptive simplicity, Haigh allows his characters to be as multifaceted as real people generally are. They don't feel like symbols placed to convey a moral. That said, throughout Charley's sometimes-harrowing journey, there is a through line: the undeniable need for love. Haigh skillfully builds that essential drive within Charley, so we feel his longing and his heartbreaks. Plummer's unselfconscious, totally committed performance certainly deserves to be remembered. We simply believe him. Without trying too hard, Lean on Pete delivers a profound meditation on the will to survive and the necessity of love.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in Lean on Pete. How does it compare to what you might see in an action movie? Do all types of media violence have the same impact?
Charley steals food, breaks into a house, and strikes back at someone who stole from him. What do you think about the morality of his actions? Is he a "good" or "bad" person, or is the portrait too complex for easy definition?
How is homelessness typically depicted on-screen? Have you ever seen what you thought were homeless kids in real life? How do you think they ended up in that situation? Did this film change your ideas?
- In theaters: April 6, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: July 10, 2018
- Cast: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Travis Fimmel
- Director: Andrew Haigh
- Studio: A24
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, Horses and Farm Animals
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 121 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language and brief violence
- Last updated: February 26, 2021
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