Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
An inclusive and remarkable piece of cinema, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is an amazing showcase for actor Zach Gottsagen, a performer with Down syndrome, who both filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz met at a camp for disabled actors.
The story is a cross country road trip odyssey in the vein of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” as our main characters hike to Southeast, Florida looking for a wrestling school headlined by Zak’s (Gottsagen) idol: The Salt-Water Redneck (played convincingly by Thomas Haden Church). And to anyone that knows him, understands how much 22 year old Zak is consumed by the life of pro wrestling, and that he spends his days wearing out an old VHS tape of his favorite icons, though, he views them inside the walls of a retirement home where he’s looked after by Dakota Johnson’s Elenore.
His many attempts to flee his mandated shelter are met with swift resistance, and he even gets labeled a flight risk. Except for one night, aided by his crafty roommate (a raspy Bruce Dern) he busts out into the tall grass of freedom with only a pair of underwear to his name and ends up crossing paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf in a touching, and sympathetic portrayal) - a depressed fisherman who’s on the run of both the law, and a crew of pissed-off crabbers - played by John Hakes and rapper Yelawolf. Together, the pair navigate the trenches and forests of North Carolina, routinely taking sips of backyard distilled whisky, building boats to cross lakes, and preparing Zak for his future in the ring, with the script containing a few surprises and hiccups for the two along their journey.
The filmmakers present a glistening view of the swampy countryside that’s strikingly human. Of course, it takes Tyler more than a few scenes to warm up to Zak, who constantly asks questions and inquiries about who can and cannot attend his birthday party. And LaBeouf brings a surprising amount of warmth to his performance. It seems that, no matter what the actor does in his personal life, he makes solid career moves when it comes to the projects he tackles, committing himself to whatever the material demands. Sure there’s a forced love story which transpires between Elanore and Tyler, but the character building between Zak and Tyler is what gives “The Peanut Butter Falcon” an affecting touch.
Granted, Nilson and Scwartz’ film often trots into familiar territory, and the deflective subplot involving Hakes and Yelawolf’s goons seems like an afterthought when you consider how fleshed out and detailed the main relationship is. Still, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” - which is named after Zach’s wrestling alter-ego - finds salvation in its picturesque worldview of reality. There’s a healthy dose of that in terms of LaBeouf and, specifically, Gottsagen’s breakthrough performance, and for a road-trip picture that strays into formulaic territory - “Peanut Butter Falcon” offers a distinctive and rousing look at life.