Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Starring Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour and 33 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
In the tradition of great American double-act road trip movies from Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise to more recent examples such as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Fundamentals of Caring comes The Peanut Butter Falcon; in which mismatched duo Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen don’t so much drive cross country as walk and sail, in the spirit of Huck Finn. Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down Syndrome who is being cared for in a retirement home because his family have given him up. Zak is desperate to escape, mainly so he can make it to the wrestling school he has seen on his favorite video tape featuring his hero: The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Enlisting the help of his partner-in-crime Carl (Bruce Dern), he manages to escape and his care-giver Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) sets off in pursuit, hoping to track him down before the situation is reported to the authorities.
Meanwhile, Tyler (LaBeouf) is in hot water due to stealing crab pots from Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (YelaWolf), then setting the dock that contains all of their equipment on fire. He speeds off in his boat, only to discover a stowaway – you guessed it – Zak, in naught but his underpants. When the boat breaks down, they must continue on foot, until they find a religious blind man who baptizes Zak in exchange for them using his scrap to build a raft. Eventually, Eleanor does find Zak and Tyler and she is persuaded to join them on their quest to find the wrestling school.
Debut writing-directing team Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz got their inspiration for the film from Gottsagen himself, who they met at a camp. They built the story around him and his real-life love of wrestling. The writing does avoid most of the pitfalls of being overly sentimental or schmaltzy by constantly undercutting the emotion with humor. Surprisingly, John Bernthal (a pretty big star) has a non-speaking role as Tyler’s brother, who is only seen in minimal flashback sequences. This is under-developed and only serves to give Tyler a tragic backstory, so we can sympathize with his criminal ways. It is slightly too conveniently trite when Elenor is given a very similar family history, in order to bring her closer to Tyler.
LaBeouf has had an extremely rocky road (off cinema screens) for many years, but his acting talent is pretty undeniable. He has chosen interesting projects, including music videos (Elastic Heart with Sia being a beautiful example) and performance/video art recently. He has also written an introspective, semi-autobiographical film coming out later this year, called Honey Boy in which he plays the role of his own father. LaBeouf’s innate charisma is crucial to selling the role of Tyler in The Peanut Butter Falcon, which has his usual mix of being an over-confident a-hole, but with a soft core at the center. His natural chemistry with Gottsagen had to be exceptional in order for this movie to work and the scenes of Tyler coaching Zak are some of the best. Zak’s inability to lie makes for both matter-of-fact blunt truths (the source of much of the humor), as well as his complete openness – he wants to befriend everyone and invite them to his birthday.
When the trio finally make it to The Salt Water Redneck (magnificently played by Church), things move up a farcical and fantastical gear, but this works well. In fact, more magic realism would have added to the mythic quality already present in the story of an epic journey down river by raft (pursued by baddies) and it could have leaned into the Southern Gothic atmosphere more. Instead, it focuses on the ‘found family’ theme, which is fair enough and the central trio sells it well. It is extremely refreshing to see disability represented on screen authentically and not just the usual Oscar-bait of an able-bodied actor playing at having motor neurone disease (as just one example).
There is some stunning scenery, which is well-photographed by Nigel Bluck (using his experience on True Detective), on the journey that the film takes through the South. Two of the most satisfying sequences are when Tyler and Zak build the raft, complete with patchwork sail and when Tyler makes a costume for Zak’s wrestling persona, The Peanut Butter Falcon. With both this year’s Fighting with my Family and GLOW (currently on Season 3), wrestling seems to be having something of a pop culture moment and the best thing is that these films and TV shows can be enjoyed by those (like me) who don’t know anything about the sport.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is funny and charming, with a trio of appealing performances. It is a “little movie that could” and will hopefully find support from an audience. It is definitely the kind of film you could comfortably see with parents and even grandparents and there is definitely something to be said for that. A pleasant distraction from present-day tensions.