Making a film about a lonely boy and a horse means expectations of "The Black Stallion" variety are inevitable, but that's not where "Lean on Pete" is going. Not at all.
Beautifully subverting the form, Andrew Haigh has made an impeccably acted film as despairing as it is finally a bit hopeful, effortlessly involving us in the often disturbing struggle of a 15-year-old desperate to find the stability and security we all yearn for.
This is the first American film for British filmmaker Haigh, known for such intimate dramas as "Weekend" and the knockout Charlotte Rampling/Tom Courtenay drama "45 Years."
Haigh's works are exemplars of quiet filmmaking, cinema that doesn't make a fuss. He is all about giving his characters their space and their due, and he has a knack for making the ordinary more involving than it has any right to be.
As with "45 Years," which was based on a short story, Haigh starts with a printed source, in this case a novel by Willy Vlautin that has been filmed in the areas of Portland and eastern Oregon where it is largely set.
This is not the hipster metropolis of "Portlandia," but the more working class Delta Park neighborhood in the city's north, an area that's home to the Portland Downs racetrack (Portland Meadows in real life) that is central to "Lean on Pete's" story.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is newly arrived in town from Spokane with his dad. Wary and conscientious, he is introduced unpacking in his new room (it doesn't take long) before going out for a run in the neighborhood.
Running, as does the protagonist in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," in part simply to escape, Charley notices Portland Downs and tells his father they might want to check it out.
The relationship between Charley and his blue-collar dad Ray (Travis Frimmel) is one of the film's most intriguing. A gregarious womanizer given to saying things like "Marlene was smart for a stripper," Ray would seem to be everything his son is not.
A single parent for years since his wife walked out, Ray may leave Charley alone a lot and do nothing to discourage his son's Captain Crunch diet, but the two are clearly quite close and dependent on each other.
For his part, Charley is quiet and polite, sensitive in a real rather than a movie way. As played by the adept Plummer (the kidnapped Getty in "All the Money in the World"), Charley has the ranginess of a young Clint Eastwood, with a face that can be wary as well as sweet depending on what is on offer.
Given that it is the summer, Charley gravitates toward Portland Downs, where he runs into Del Montgomery, the kind of cranky old-timer Steve Buscemi is finally old enough to play.
A small-time, perpetually grumbling owner and trainer whose string of horses has gone from 20 to six, Del hires Charley for a variety of odd jobs, both here and on the circuit of ramshackle county fairgrounds tracks he frequents.
Del is clearly not a man of iron-clad integrity, but Buscemi's persona makes him likable, and Del in his own gruff way is clearly concerned about Charley's well-being.
The boy for his part has become quite close to one of Del's horses, a sweet-natured animal named Lean on Pete. This despite warnings from Bonnie (a fine Chloë Sevigny), a tough-talking but warm jockey who insists Pete "is not a pet, he's just a horse, that is just the way it is."
"Lean on Pete" is so persuasively directed by Haigh that it is easy to forgive its inherently melodramatic nature, the string of bad things that happen to Charley that put him on the run with a horse he fears will meet an untimely end unless he takes a hand.
Like a modern-day descendant of Huck Finn, Charlie decides to light out for the territory, experiencing a journey that allows Haigh to provide a spare and honest picture of where America is today, a portrait that is clearly one of his aims.
Though some of the people Charley meets, like a pair of Iraq war combat veterans, feel generic, "Lean on Pete" is too savvy to linger there.
What happens to Charley, the film posits, the bad and the good, is not so much the fault of specific individuals but of the indifferent dead ends built into America's despairing culture of the underclass. Your heart goes out to this striving, yearning young man, and that's a tribute to the fine filmmaking on display.
'Lean on Pete'
Rating: R, for language and brief violence
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes