At the outset of Lean on Pete, a kid named Charley passes an old guy who needs help fixing a flat.
"Are you strong?" the man asks.
It's a line that reverberates throughout Lean on Pete, which finds Charley (Charlie Plummer) vulnerable, then isolated, then lost in a world that little notes, or cares, that he's gone.
If he isn't strong, he won't survive.
Early scenes show us that he's at least resourceful. He's a high school kid, 15, just arrived in a new Pacific Northwest town, following his single dad to a new job. Dad brings home a new "mom" every so often, and sometimes that means breakfast.
Charley looks for work, and finds it at the local racetrack, where he does odd jobs for a trainer named Del (Steve Buscemi) whose dwindling stable has seen better days, better horses. Charley takes a liking to a horse named Pete, and the parallels are obvious – the horse is one bad race from the glue factory, and Charley's fears about his own tenuous hold on love, security and stability become bound up in the animal.
The horse's sometime jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), sees what a mistake he's making.
"It's not a pet," she warns. "It's just a horse."
Too late, of course. Charley, the kid nobody wants, sees his reflection in Pete. He's already lost a mom to drugs, his itinerant dad is an accident waiting to happen. Charley is hanging by a thread. In a different movie, when the thread breaks, he would find a surrogate dad in gruff but lovable Del, or a stand-in mom in Bonnie, and love between a boy and his horse would restore Pete to the winners' circle.
Tear up those trifecta tickets, though, because this is not that movie.
Lean on Pete is life-affirming in that it affirms life is hard and unforgiving. For poor folks and addicts, your prospects are about the same as they are for a horse that's lost the ability to earn.
For them, life has one question: Are you strong?
The answer hangs in the balance as we watch Charley set off on a strange odyssey with Pete, first in a truck, then on foot, propelled by the quixotic belief that he will find a caring relative in Wyoming. Lean on Pete becomes a road movie of sorts, full of strange passages, sometimes harrowing (Steve Zahn turns up as a homeless alcoholic who befriends Charley at a soup kitchen), sometimes oddly beautiful – Charley and Pete alone in the desert, under the stars, an image just lovely and peaceful enough to incubate the faint hope of a benign outcome.
Still, the boy remains on the verge of starvation, hypothermia, and failure.
When was the last time I watched a movie and wished so fervently for an abandoned child to survive — Beasts of the Southern Wild? Lean on Pete lacks the cushion of that movie's reassuring note of enchantment.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh (adapting a Willy Vlautin novel) keeps his camera objective, and keeps sympathy at bay. His movie shrugs its shoulders and asks of Charley, again and again, are you strong?
The boy tightens his belt another notch, and keeps walking, because he knows there's only one right answer.