Horse lovers and the parents of horse-loving kids, be forewarned. This is not a Disney contemporary fairytale and the trail “Lean on Pete” takes wanders far off the Hallmark movie route of tears and cheers. There is a happy ending but death and violence come before it for the 15-year-old Charlie.
Charlie has just moved from Spokane, Washington to Portland. He carries with him a football trophy. He must have been an upcoming king of the high school society just a few months prior. Now he lives in a dump where the furniture and appliances have seen better days and are still covered with those memories in dirt. The refrigerator contains only beer and cereal. The cereal is there to prevent cockroaches from having a party.
Charlie lives with his father who has brought his latest sexual partner home. She’s married and has gotten up early enough to get groceries and cook breakfast. She and Charlie’s father have to get to work. Charlie runs to keep in shape, wearing a precious t-shirt that reminds him of the high school he left but his shorts and shoes tell us that not a lot of attention has been paid to his clothing or his future. On his run, we see that the two live in an area without sidewalks, in a mixed-use area on the border of poverty, near manufacturers and car junk yards and, more importantly, a run-down racetrack.
A cursing older man ends up changing Charlie’s life. Charlie begins to earn money at the track, but the old man, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), doesn’t race thoroughbreds; he races quarter horses. The runs are short and the span of of a race horse’s career even shorter. Del is on the scuzzy end of the racing world hierarchy. He uses a much damaged jockey (Chloë Sevigny) who supports herself waitressing.
Pete is one of Del’s horses because the other wasn’t easy-going. Pete’s problem is that he’s sweet and doesn’t have a killer instinct. Charlie suddenly finds alone and that Pete is tagged for slaughter. He sets out to save Pete and find his only living relative.
This is a heartbreaking story that doesn’t turn out how you’d wish, but should make you think twice about homelessness and the kind of family you may or may not have.