Published Aug 21, 2019It would have been easy for The Peanut Butter Falcon to fall prey to all the most egregious inspirational indie film stereotypes, and end up a nauseatingly quirky, bluegrass-infused story about a magical person with disabilities who teaches non-disabled characters how to love again. And, to be fair, at times it touches on sentimentality and overly earnest quirk (and the title of the film certainly suggests that tone).
But it's a testament to true-to-character casting that The Peanut Butter Falcon is so much more powerfully resonant and honest than that. It's elevated beyond cloying corniness by the naturalness of its performances, from Zack Gottsagen's unstoppable energy to Shia LaBeouf's quiet warmth and crushed-but-not-broken spirit. This isn't a story that condescends to its protagonists — rather, the two are on equal footing, each giving back in equal measure.
The Peanut Butter Falcon follows Zak (Gottsagen), a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who's been stuck in a Southern nursing home for his entire life, following abandonment by his parents and the failure of the state to find any other suitable place for him. Understandably bored by his elderly companions, Zak passes the time by watching old videotapes, especially one featuring a wrestler called "The Salt Water Redneck" (Thomas Haden Church) and his patented wrestling school.
Zak, eager to escape the banal confines of his universe, decides to break out of the retirement home, find the Salt Water Redneck, and learn to become a professional wrestler. When his nurse and friend Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) learns what's happened — and how Zak will be sent to a much sketchier institution if he's found — she sets out to find him. At the same time, Tyler (LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman mourning the loss of his older brother, is so broke he's resorted to stealing from other crab hauls. Ostracized by his community and hunted down by two revenge-seeking crabsmen (John Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf), Tyler decides to hightail it from North Carolina to Florida by boat — but what he doesn't know when he pulls away from the dock is that Zak has been hiding inside it this whole time.
So begins a gently meandering buddy comedy in the tradition of great Southern road trip stories like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the grandfather of all Delta adventures, Huckleberry Finn.
It's refreshing to see a story about male friendships and male vulnerability in an era when men are still mocked and degraded for them, and it's also refreshing to see men acknowledge that aggression and machismo isn't the way to channel that vulnerability. LaBeouf especially leans into that frustration with the intensity he's known — and occasionally derided — for, but here it works powerfully, as he lets his gestures and mannerisms depict a deeply damanged and lonely man gradually learning to open up to others.
If The Peanut Butter Falcon were any other movie, it would be Shia's story, but The Peanut Butter Falcon is no Rain Man — in more ways than one. Gottsagen himself has Downs syndrome, and the role was written with him in mind after meeting directors Schwartz and Nilson years ago at a program for actors with disabilities. Gottsagen has presence, gusto, and a well-honed sense of comic timing that elevates his performance beyond the socially-induced confines of being an actor with disabilities, and it's this effortlessly charismatic performance that makes Zak the driving force behind the film.
The film doesn't do as well with its periphery characters. The villains are fairly underdeveloped stock baddies complete with facial tattoos. Dakota Johnson as Eleanor, who eventually gets roped into the whole kooky scheme, unfortunately doesn't have much of a narrative of her own. But Johnson's earnestness and no-nonsense approach to the character makes her stand out, despite an underdeveloped story.
Narratively, The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn't go in any unpredictable directions. There are moments when the film tugs on your heartstrings in exactly the overly sentimental way you thought it would, but it's the naturalness of the acting that pulls you back in. The Peanut Butter Falcon is at its best when it allows itself to drift through the Delta as we follow these fractured characters gradually learn to piece themselves and each other back together. It's a quiet film that succeeds where others with the same thematic bones don't because it doesn't insist upon a message, but rather lets its protagonists lead us there.