It could have gone so wrong, but the feature writing/directing debut from Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson got to me hard, right in the heart. Although not your typical tearjerker, The Peanut Butter Falcon reminds me of a road movie that might have been made in the late 1960s or into the 1970s. It concerns a Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who escapes from his group home to pursue his goal of meeting his wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and attending his pro wrestling school.
Early on his journey from North Carolina to Florida, he befriends a local fisherman with a short temper named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who has a tendency to steal from other fishermen’s traps. After getting his ass kicked for it, Tyler retaliates by burning thousands of dollars of equipment belonging to a local crab fisherman (John Hawkes) who then spends most of the film hunting Tyler. Zak and Tyler form an uneasy bond, but since Tyler refuses to treat Zak like “a Down Syndrome” (as Zak calls himself at one point), Zak is empowered and able to learn and take care of himself at a rate that the home simply didn’t allow. The journey these two take is important, but it’s the conversations and lessons they share with each other that make the film so moving, while refusing to let itself become sentimental or preachy—far from it.
Lest you think someone from the home isn’t looking for Zak, his primary caretaker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, giving yet another unexpected performance as the film’s voice of reason), is hot on his trail, and when she finally does catch up with the pair, rather than drag Zak back to the home (and his cantankerous roommate, played by Bruce Dern), she allows the journey to continue if only so Zak can learn that his long-time dream—based on a series of ancient and worn-out VHS tapes of very old wrestling matches—is destined to lead to disappointment.
As much as I’d love to avoid the Mark Twain/Huck Finn comparisons of this story, the group builds a raft at one point, so we’re pretty much stuck with it. The Peanut Butter Falcon (the title comes from the wrestling nickname Zak gives himself along the way) is a type of coming-of-age story and not just for Zak, who certainly is a different person by the time the film concludes. But Tyler, also, learns a bit about letting go of the many failures in his life, as well as how to be a little less of a tool around women, as Eleanor reject his clunky attempts at sweet talk.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the group makes it to the home of The Salt Water Redneck, and naturally the years have taken their toll on him. But that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t find small, poignant ways to make itself a little magical. And a great deal of that has to do with Gottsagen’s wonderfully charming performance. He’s got as much charisma and a gift for timing as any other, better known actors I’ve seen this year, and I hope he becomes one of the year’s breakthrough performers. The way he and LaBeouf work together is like both of their lives have been leading up to this.
And I think it’s time we stop making LaBeouf’s name a punchline to every joke about off-kilter celebrities and give the guy the credit he richly deserves as an actor (just wait until you see him in the upcoming Honey Boy this November). The Peanut Butter Falcon is sweet without piling on the saccharine and a tremendous story about pain, acceptance and how both can lead to growth. Certainly, it’s one of the more surprising, under-the-radar releases of the year, and I hope you take a chance with it.
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