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Brent Northup

Lean on Pete

At the Myrna Loy

(R)

Grade: B+

At precisely 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 5, 2018, expensive horses paraded to the starting gates for the Kentucky Derby run in Louisville.

At that same moment, an unassuming horse named Pete, without any pedigree, limped across the screen at the Myrna Loy.

This aging quarter horse was being carted from one small dirt track to another across the Pacific Northwest to try to win a few bucks in low-stakes races. His trainer Del, a scruffy old-timer who’s not above cutting a few corners and leaving town in a hurry, isn’t running for the roses -- he just hopes to earn enough cash to get some chow at one of his favorite diners, where the waitress knows him by name.

“Put it on my tab,” Del will say, on days when Pete finishes back in the pack.

One day a young 15-year-old boy named Charley wanders near the stable, and Del asks him if he’d help him move some heavy stuff. Charley, a lost soul who has never known his mom and whose dad is no role model, asks Del is he has any other work.

Del agrees to hire the kid so long as the boy’s not afraid of hard work. Charley grabs a shovel and cleans up after the horses -- and wins the job.

Charley is instantly drawn towards Pete, a quarter horse who seldom crosses the finish line first.

Charley knows what that feels like -- he sees lots of tails in front of him, too.

“Lean on Pete” is a story of a boy and a horse that’s a long way from “Black Beauty” and “My Friend Flicka.” Any family that heads for the Myrna hoping to pet the cinematic nose of a friendly mare will be bucked off their saddles.

At its heart, “Pete” is a coming-of age-story about a sweet but abandoned boy who is at a crossroads in life. Working with horses provides Charley with a purpose.

When Charley puts an arm around the horse and runs his hand through Pete’s mane, we think we know the rest: Charley will turn Pete into a winner and, in the process, will win his own race as well.

Wrong movie.

This script has a raw sense of realism that won’t sanction sappy sentiment.

After Pete finishes last in a race and is slated for slaughter, Charley makes a hard choice: He steals his employer’s truck, loads up his horse and heads out of Portland. His destination is vague. He thinks he has an aunt that lives somewhere in Wyoming. Maybe he can find her.

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No matter what, Charley won’t allow Pete to be killed.

But Charley has little money for gas and food. He steals some things from a convenience store, and tries to run from a restaurant without paying for dinner.

Before long, Charley is no longer an innocent kid who loves his horse. He’s making bad choices and will likely pay for them.

And, because reality isn’t Disney-fied, things will get worse before the clouds begin to part.

At times “Lean on Pete” drags a bit as a boy and his horse plod along the open fields of the West, including eastern Oregon, which stands in for both Montana and Wyoming in this odyssey. A few of the life-is-tough scenes seem a touch gratuitous, but I was thankful for the realism, nonetheless.

The ending, which shall remain for you to discover, is deeply moving.

Maria Montessori in her book about adolescence suggested that rising teens should not be stuffed in school desks, but should be working outdoors with animals and soaking up nature. Nature will mentor them and help them come of age.

Charley takes that path and proves Montessori right. Walking across dry grasslands with his horse at his side helps Charley heal some of his bruises -- in great part because he leaned on Pete.

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