Willem (Leo) van der Zanden’s review published on Letterboxd:
If there’s one peculiar, little subgenre in film that has, almost stubbornly, managed to stay afloat from the early days of film till now, it must be the “adolescent boy comes of age through a close friendship with a horse”-genre. The story has been told countless times and often with little to no variation. In fact, the plots of such stories are often very thinly veiled or even non-existent. These flimsy narratives are more a certain kind of basis through which a deeper, underlying story could be told. This doesn’t always happen and most of these tales just end up being about the kids finding the strength within themselves, but once in a while they elevate the purpose of a cutesy kids-film and end up being a truly meaningful exploration of flourishing adulthood.
In the case of Lean on Pete, this piece of personal growth comes in the form of a harsh, existential crisis. 15-year old Charley spends his summer roaming around the house and occasionally running to get some groceries (or just simply spend some energy). He lives with his dad and his latest girlfriend and not much seems to be going on. When, during one of his many runs, a cranky, old man (top-tier Steve Buscemi) asks him for a helping hand, he happily agrees and before he knows it, he’s got a summer job on his hands helping transport horses to and from different races. After he's spent some time working with the horses, he develops a particular fondness of one of the older ones, the titular Lean on Pete. Everything seems to be getting better when one day his dad gets attacked and critically wounded in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, his bond with the horse driver starts to worsen as well and when he hears his father has died, he runs away with Lean on Pete on a trail of deep musings and a quest to find his place in the world and a family to love him.
Even with a plot like that, one could still expect a rather mediocre, made-for-tv, run-of-the-mill little drama, yet in the hands of Andrew Haigh, it almost magically turns into a solid character-driven drama. Honestly, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. After the quiet musings of Weekend and 45 Years, Haigh was ready to paint the complexities of relationships on a bigger canvas and that experiment turned into this low-beat western of a roaming soul, lost in a sea of roamers. His focus always stays on Charley as he tries to uncover the things that make him tick and with the harrowing journey Haigh puts him on, there are quite some things we find out. Yet for all the action that he encounters, he only lets out a handful of thoughts when he’s in the open air with his long-legged friend. The rest of his motives are shown in the confronting way in which the minor has to struggle through the dirt. During the course of the film, he quite literally collects more and more dirt and filth on his face and clothes. Whether it is the environment or his own uncontrolled actions that make him do this, he is pushed to the ground and deeper, seemingly the only route he could take to find himself. Haigh doesn’t have a serious amount of sympathy for his characters. He loves to break their hearts by any means possible, but in the end, that harsh treatment does create some truly compelling and, more importantly, intelligent drama. Charley doesn’t even show much of his character. He is often played like a very quiet, perhaps even stilted young man but nonetheless one who is very determined to go the distance. He’s like a Hercules stripped of any kind of power but who still goes on fighting for a better future, while running from a path of past destructions. Praise should rightfully go out to actor Charlie Plummer who gives so much emotion to his character while keeping so much of it hidden behind that unflinching, toughened exterior. He’s a quiet revelation quite unlike most young actors today and his casting is surely what made this film such a success. Charley is like a helpless puppet struck by the fate of the world as if it were a thunderbolt. He carries a burden like so many young men or women do but it is that closeted feeling, that urge to keep your mouth shut and just fight on that is at once so painfully relatable and absolutely true!
Charley could easily become a small icon of the struggle of growing up, with his relationship with Lean on Pete being the centerpiece of both love and loss in a young man’s life. There’s an undeniable truth in this film and through Haigh’s wonderful directing it becomes something both completely intangible yet painfully close to the heart. Stunning.