Charlie Plummer, the star of Lean on Pete, has been making quite an impact in the movies that feature him. As 16-year-old kidnapping victim John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s recent All the Money in the World, the biographical crime drama exploring the kidnapping of the younger Getty and the deplorable reaction of his billionaire grandfather Jean Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation), he projects his character’s mounting wariness and sense of dread with a grounded soulfulness that fully engages our sympathies. He embodies the absolute loneliness that comes when everyone that matters abandons you. In that regard, he is like a living special effect, custom-made to express bottomless depths of melancholy, and he’s impossible to ignore.
When we see him early on as Charley Thompson in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, he’s taking his morning run. He’s already lost in the throes of a blissful athletic high, angelic in his surrender to the irresistible pull of each step forward. He has slipped into a state past pleasure or pain.
As a former long-distance runner, I remember this state well — you stop thinking about the rigors of form drilled into your head during training, or the miles still to come, and you just run. It is what you are doing, and therefore everything that you are is in that moment. Nothing else matters.
So Charley doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s free. He’s free, that is, until he comes home to find there’s not much to eat and his father Ray (Travis Fimmel) is ensconced behind his closed bedroom door entertaining the latest lady in his life (Amy Seimetz). Turns out she’s a good cook, so she’s able to convince Ray to go out for groceries so she can fix breakfast before they head off to work together.
As Ray speaks of his romantic partner’s husband, a big Samoan guy who’ll never find them, there’s a roguish quality to him that is mixed with sincere ineptitude. It’s obvious that no one should rely on him for anything; his luck is bad and he’s not going to be able to help himself out of any future inevitable jam. You can see Charley needs to be somewhere else, away from Ray.
But where? Charley’s mom has left them. After a scene or two with Ray, you get it that she got out while the getting was good. But that she left Charley behind speaks ill of her. After all, mothers don’t leave their children, so Charley’s got two strikes against him — both his parents.
But he’s good. By that, I mean he’s good in a sense beyond simple morality. Charley’s compass always points north. He’s eternally positive, but it never becomes cloying. Life constantly deals him cards from the bottom of the deck, yet he maintains his place in the light.
Along the way, every one of the people he leans on lets him down. Still, somehow, he never falters. He stays positive when he encounters Del (Steve Buscemi), a down-on-his-luck racehorse trainer/owner who hires Charley on to do the tending to of his prized horse — dubbed “Lean on Pete.” Del and his equally downtrodden jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) seem like kindred souls for Charley, but they have lived long and hard enough that their world-weariness has calcified into a callousness that Charley can’t stomach.
Charley flees with the horse, taking off on a quest to find a safe haven and someone who will care for and protect his innocence. At every turn, though, life does its level best to break the boy’s spirit. Haigh’s film, based on a novel by Willy Vlautin, seems intent on finding Charley’s breaking point.
Lean on Pete is all about conventional notions of good and bad, as well as the emerging gray area that develops in the blending of the two. It could have been devastatingly depressing, an exercise in abject futility. But Plummer redeems it, and offers us an example of the redemptive power of innocence unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. He’s the film’s unshakable rock. (Now playing.) (R) Grade: A