“It was just so unrelentingly bleak,” Jay sighed as we divvied up our review assignments after a busy day of films in Venice. That’s exactly right. Lean On Pete is misery from start to finish. Parents are thrown through glass doors and wind up in hospital. Teenagers have to take shitty jobs instead of fuflilling their athletic potential. As part of those jobs, teens see slow horses being sent to Mexico for slaughter. Nice aunts who may be able to help those teens have disappeared from phone books after fighting with teens’ parents. Will teens have to live on the street while they search for those nice aunts?
Having just mentioned horses being slaughtered in Mexico, is it in bad taste to say that Charlie Plummer is the glue that holds this film together? Well, either way, that’s the word I’m going to use, because Plummer is amazing as the teenager, Charley, who would have no luck if not for bad luck. Plummer more than holds his own against screen veterans like Steve Buscemi, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn (none of whom stick around for too long). His strong performance and natural charisma will make you root for him.
I am not exaggerating when I say that every conceivable thing goes wrong for Charley in this movie. It’s horrible. Even as I warn you, I know you cannot be prepared for what is about to happen. Charley seems smart, and he’s clearly a hard worker, but he keeps getting dealt the worst possible hands, against all conceivable odds.
Plummer’s strong performance makes it so devastating to see what happens to this poor kid, especially because you know there are real kids out there with similar luck to Charley’s, stuck in a bad situation without any path out. Life isn’t fair, and Charley’s journey is evidence of that, because Charley doesn’t do anything to deserve the lifetime’s worth of misery he experiences during Lean On Pete’s two hour runtime.
There is something uplifting to be found in Charley’s resilience. In the face of all the misery he’s subjected to, he does not stop. He gets to where he wants to go, and maybe even gets a happy ending. Hopefully. After suffering with Charley, I need to tell myself he did, and the film is kind enough to let me believe it happened. I’m not sure the lift at the end was enough of a boost to put me back to level, but a cinematic reminder of how charmed a life I lead is never a bad thing when it’s this well put together, even if it’s this unrelentingly bleak.