Photo by Jamison Riley on Unsplash

Last night Bob and I watched Lean on Pete. From the description—a 15-year-old boy tries to save a horse from slaughter—I had no idea that I would be experiencing the most intense chapter from my childhood.

Spoiler alert: I give away the plot as usual.

The film opens with the boy, Charlie, surrounded by boxes, unwrapping trophies and placing them on his windowsill. (Minus the trophies, this was familiar.) Next, he goes for a run. From this bit, we see that he’s just moved to a new home, and he isn’t on the nice side of the tracks. (Also, familiar.)

There is a track, in fact, a race track, close enough that he spots it on his first run. Next, we see him returning home to find a woman who’s just spent the night with his father, making breakfast. Enter his father, a chauvinistic and crude loudmouth. Come to find out, the woman bought the groceries for breakfast, because the cupboards and fridge are bare. She also has an angry husband she’s trying to leave, described as a big Samoan.

(This kid goes hungry a lot. And he seems to be the adult in the family.)

Later, Charlie wanders over to the track and runs into Del, an older man who is trying to change a tire in a hurry. Del asks for help and pays Charlie, prompting Charlie to ask if he might need more help. After leaving a note for his dad, and picking up a sleeping bag, he travels with Del to the next race. Del is gruff and sleazy—slipping his horses steroids and over-working them, but he teaches Charlie and pays him fairly. He also asks questions. “Where’s your mother?”

(And here comes a biggie: Charlie’s mother abandoned him.)

Charlie spends his first cash payout on groceries which he takes home to his dad.

(It’s up to Charlie to earn money for food.)

As Charlie is growing into his job and becoming attached to the slower (and gentler) horse, Lean on Pete, his father fares less well. In a scene witnessed by Charlie, the Samoan beats up his dad and throws him through a window, leading to horrific abdominal slashes. At first, Charlie works with the horses during the day and stays with his father in the hospital at night, but when Del needs him to travel to another race, he goes—leaving messages for his father.

On this trip, Del and Charlie are joined by Bonnie, a jockey. Through her questions, we find out more. Charlie was close to his Aunt, but she and his dad fought, and he hasn’t seen her in years. We’ve seen Charlie looking at photos of her and know this was a huge loss for him.

Charlie returns to the hospital and learns that his father has died. While the doctor is looking for a social worker to deal with him, he runs off, going back to the stable and Lean on Pete. He grieves on his own, not telling anyone.

In the next race, Lean on Pete finishes last, and Charlie is asked to fetch him. He’s been sold, which means one thing, he’ll be slaughtered.

(Loss, loss, loss, and more loss. The blows just keep coming.)

Charlie loads Pete into the trailer, and then he takes off. What follows is tough but beautifully rendered. A boy trying to save a horse and himself, two runners without money or anyone to help them. He pins his hopes on his aunt—but his dad wouldn’t give him her number and calling the Operator (remember that?) doesn’t lead to any listings.

Charlie struggles to get gas and food for himself and Pete, resorting to stealing both. It’s tough to watch a kid, reeling with grief, desperate to save a creature even more helpless than himself, up against a harsh world. Then it gets a lot tougher. Charlie leaves the truck when he runs out of gas again, and continues on foot, leading Pete.

Steal your eyes away from this and go get the movie now, before I spoil it entirely.

Here it is. The horse dies. Pete spooks at the sound of motorcycles and breaks away from Charlie. He runs toward the traffic and is hit. The police arrive to make a report and Charlie, assuming he’s a wanted man, flees again.

Charlie makes it to Denver in a bad part of town, which at least means he can get free soup at the mission. He’s not safe though. He’s offered a place to sleep by a man he meets at the soup kitchen, but when he earns money painting a house, the man steals it.

(A kid utterly alone, hungry, and under attack.)

It seems Charlie can’t ever get a break.

Minus the horse and the journey, I was watching my childhood. Not the sexual predation, but the hunger, the desolation, the lack of any adults or anyone caring for me, the clinging to a shred of hope.

Unlike Charlie, I didn’t run off. I figured that as bad off as I was—hungry and living in fear—I wouldn’t do better by leaving. I had a roof over my head—that was one less problem than I’d have if I left. Make that two: I was a girl–which meant I was under attack at home but would face more dangers if I left.

Midway through Lean on Pete, Charlie stops at a farmhouse to ask for water for the horse. He meets the 2 young veterans who live there and joins them for dinner with a foul-mouthed neighbor and his granddaughter. The granddaughter cooks and serves the men, all the while subjected to vicious name-calling by her grandfather. When Charlie helps her with the dishes afterwards, he asks, “Why do you let them treat you that way?” When she answers, “Because I don’t have anywhere else to go,” the moment is like an exclamation point on all that’s at stake for Charlie.

I’d have answered the same way, back when I was 13. One night I heard Bill talking to my mother behind the closed kitchen door.

“Kathy and Debbie need to start earning their way around here,”

“But how?” my mother said.

“On the streets,” Bill said. “They’ll fetch a good price.” I’d fled to my room without waiting to hear how my mother answered. I knew she’d do anything Bill asked. But I didn’t want to hear her say it.

Bill’s threat of “the streets” made me all-too-aware of what my income options were at that age. No legitimate place would hire me. And, whether she’s compensated for it or not, a girl alone is never safe—her body becomes fair game. That thought—prostitution or rape—filled me with fear and revulsion. It kept me in the house with Bill and my mother.

In Lean on Pete, Charlie’s luck finally turns. He recovers his money, and having followed a reliable lead, buys a bus ticket to the town in Idaho where he’s learned his aunt is working at a library. Arriving at the station, it’s heartbreaking to see the other passengers, all with suitcases, being greeting by loved ones. Charlie walks on alone and empty handed. Then he sees the library.

Yes, this part will make you cry, in a good way.

I eventually landed in a safe home too. This lovely film reminded me of my own journey.