“Lean on Pete” might appear to be the latest inspirational tale about a boy and his horse, but appearances can be deceiving. The film, adapted from Willy Vlautin’s novel by the talented director Andrew Haigh (“45 Years,” “Weekend”), is more Steinbeck than “Seabiscuit,” an at times piercingly sad look at the rural underclass of America and a teenage boy who’s in danger of falling through the cracks. It is hard and empathetic and bleak and often beautiful — not far off from a prairie “400 Blows.”
So it’s certainly not for little kids, no matter what the trailers or posters imply. Adults and thoughtful teenagers are the best audience for this muted drama about a gangly Oregon teenager named Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer of “All the Money in the World”), who lives with his shiftless dad, Ray (Travis Fimmel), in a shack on the outskirts of Portland. Ray is a loving overgrown kid, Mom is long gone, and Charley goes for long runs by himself. He’s one of those boys in whom you can already see the old man.
One day he jogs past a decrepit racetrack, sees the horses in their stable, and feels a mysterious call. Around now we’d expect the film to introduce a cantankerous horse trainer who melts under the boy’s idealism. Instead we get Steve Buscemi as Del, who remains unmelted; hard-nosed and money-minded, he’s the first sign that “Lean on Pete” will be avoiding easy sentiment and earning its emotions instead.
Del owns a pair of steeds, the more mellow of whom is a quarter horse named Lean on Pete; with his jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) and with Charley signed up as general purpose gofer, Del plies a circuit of county fairs and backwoods racetracks. For Charley, it’s a wide new world; to everyone else, it’s not far from the end of the line.
A movie like this often puts a premium on the mysterious connection between a human and an animal, investing the latter with all sorts of projected dreams. “Lean on Pete,” the movie, dodges this trap; Lean on Pete, the horse, remains a horse. The focus instead is on how this boy loads this animal with more and more significance as events and people start to betray him. Lean on Pete soon becomes the only thing tethering Charley Thompson to the world, and at a certain point, when things start to become unbearable, all the two can do is run.
Haigh is a careful observer of human nature at its most beleaguered and resilient; who can forget Charlotte Rampling’s face as she confronts the lies on which her marriage is built in “45 Years”? “Lean on Pete” becomes a road movie featuring a lost boy very like those sleeping in fields and under highway overpasses across America, and it doesn’t sweeten the pill. Charley and his horse part company in one scene, and that scene is so upsetting and so powerfully real that it comes close to capsizing the film and taking us down with it.
What sustains the movie — and Charley, and the audience — is its faith in the essential innocence of people, even as Haigh looks coolly at the damage they’ve suffered and the damage they inflict. An Iraq War vet (Steve Zahn) living in a trailer with his girlfriend (Amy Seimetz) is seen as both a friend to Charley and his own worst enemy. Charley himself skates close to the pit and in one scene pushes himself over. He’s both ennobled and hobbled by his pride, telling one passing stranger, “I’d rather they never see me again than see me like this.”
And here, not with the horse, is where the film locates a hard-won dignity. “Lean on Pete” is a survivor’s movie, and it’s made bearable by the gentle solemnity of Plummer’s performance and by the respect Haigh extends to every character — no matter their flaws — and to a society that fails its most vulnerable members with the best of intentions.
LEAN ON PETE
Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, based on a novel by Willy Vlautin. Starring Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Travis Fimmel. At Kendall Square. 121 minutes. R (language and brief violence; a traumatic scene of animal violence).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.