This is a coming-of-age story set in the dirt-poor Midwest US. But it’s also much more than that.
Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a 15 year old growing up in a grimy, single dad home. He falls in with Dell (Steve Buscemi), a grisly horse dealer, who gives Charley a job sweeping the yard.
Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) is a jockey who never gets picked to ride by most dealers because she’s a woman. There’s also a gentle horse called Lean On Pete, which Dell derides as a “pussy”.
Dell begins to teach the bright?eyed Charley an honest living, plus a few table manners. Dell sells the horses that don’t win to “go to Mexico”. This doesn’t square with Charley when Lean On Pete is sentenced to a trip south.
Once his dad’s philandering lands him in a fatal hospital trip, Charley dons his dad’s stud belt and embarks on a great American odyssey. Seizing Dell’s truck and trailer, he makes a break for it to find his estranged aunt, far off in Wyoming.
There’s a clear theme of American identity as the heart of the story.
Since white people’s arrival, there has been a Romantic ideal at the centre of the mythical story about America.
There is unlimited scope for expansion and conquest if you have the gumption for it, and never mind the people already on the land, goes the story. But this is a story of escape and the hope of redemption.
Throughout the film Charley relies on his wits to make ends meet. Even when destitute, his instinct is to get a job, much to the amusement of the homeless couple he makes friends with.
As it turns out, if you want a job when you’re really desperate in 2018, you need to “ask the Mexicans”.
Charley dons his father’s trucker cap, a motif of blue collar work, and keeps it on like a hood to protect his identity through his quest.
Apart from one gorgeous scene bathing in an open stream, which gives his character as well as the viewer welcome relief from the dusty aesthetic of the film, he only takes it off for good when we get to the end.
The film is an interesting view on working class life in the US. Well-filmed shots of men throwing back beers watching the sunset in cowboy hats add to the myth-making.
Dell derides the people who want to “sit in front of their computers all day” instead of coming to watch horses at the racetracks.
With no immediate family, Charley slips too easily from state protection into destitution.
The film is a study of flawed human beings presented with harsh circumstances which gives it a realistic feel and prevents it from being too misty-eyed.