The Peanut Butter Falcon: A Feelgood Adventure
What do Mark Twain and wrestling have in common? They’re both foundational to Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s debut feature, The Peanut Butter Falcon. The film is a real southern charmer that takes you on an indelibly sweet adventure full of moonshine, camaraderie, dreams, and redemption.
The film tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who runs away from a residential nursing home to follow his dream of attending the professional wrestling school of his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). A strange turn of events pairs him on the road with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a small time outlaw on the run, who becomes Zak's unlikely coach and ally. Together they wind through deltas, elude capture, drink whisky, find God, catch fish, and convince Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a kind nursing home employee charged with Zak's return, to join them on their journey.
If you take the cynical-free sweetness and charm of Dave McCary’s debut, Brigsby Bear, and you combine it with the southern setting and grounded reality of Jeff Nichols’ indie folk tale, Mud, you’d have a nearly exact approximation of The Peanut Butter Falcon. In other words, Nilson and Schwartz’s light-hearted bromantic road film is an undeniable crowd-pleaser that’s deserving of its praise.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without first mentioning actor Zach Gottsagen (who plays Zak). He’s the heart and soul of the film, and he imbues it with a sense of palpable humanity, which is nicely highlighted by the performances of Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson. Gottsagen, just like his character in the film, has not allowed himself to be reduced or defined by his genetic condition. His perseverance and dedication to the craft — he’s studied acting since he was a child — is in full display, and he’s such a joy to watch. He exhibits fantastic range and has a terrific sense of comedic timing, which really adds a lot to the film — so much so that it allows you to overlook some of its flaws and missteps.
The film isn’t perfect, but it gets the most crucial elements right. It doesn’t present us with another cliched portrayal of an individual with Downs Syndrome, and it treats its subjects with the humanity they deserve instead of reducing or looking down on them. Zak isn’t just someone with a disability; he’s strong, outspoken, and treated no differently than any “normal” character. The film also does a nice job of presenting us with tangible characters that we can all relate to, which further binds is to their journey.
The characters are exactly what drive the story, and it’s through them that the film’s dual narratives of redemption and following your dreams intersect. Zak has a dream of being a professional wrestler and being trained by his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). He religiously watches the same VHS tape to prepare and is dead set on achieving his goals.
Zak’s story is contrasted heavily with Tyler, a down on his luck fisherman who’s being justifiably pursued by rival competition for torching their gear. The two meet when Zak stows away on Tyler’s boat, and though it doesn’t happen immediately, Zak inevitably charms Tyler, and the pair become inseparable friends. Tyler sees a lot of he and his brother’s relationship in he and Zak, and both have long been searching for something close to family, something neither have any longer.
Eleanor, Zak’s caretaker at his nursing home, is the closest thing to family he has, and she spends a majority of her time trying to track Zak down — and she’s incredibly talented at locating a missing person without a tracker and always seems to find herself at the right place at the right time. Eventually, she catches up to the duo and after some convincing, she comes along for the adventure, as the trio float down the aimless river Huckleberry Finn style in pursuit of Zak’s wrestling dream.
The film’s central “adventure” is purely one of self-discovery, and it lacks the oddity and colorful side characters that punctuate the Mark Twain adventures for which it’s clearly inspired. There’s a few run-ins with side characters (like the blind man), but it left me wanting more. The journey’s destination is obvious from the get-go, and it spends a lot of its time puttering around without much sense of propulsion. It’s not until it gets to its third act thst it begins to wander into potentially unpredictable terrain, but even then, it’s fairly short lived. It also suffers from some bland cinematography and loose direction, and it struggles at times to evenly juggle its two central narratives (there were times were I forgot Tyler was even being pursued or that John Hawkes was even in the film). Thomas Haden Church is also not convincing in the slightest as a wrestler, and both Job Bernthal and Bruce Dern are underutilized.
Overall, it’s less about the quality of the finished product and more about how it makes you feel. If you’re anything like us, The Peanut Butter Falcon will have you smiling and feeling inspired. Its central message is one of friendship — “Friends are the family you choose” — and following your dreams, and while it’s definitely got a lot of rough edges and imperfections, the feeling of unabashed happiness it captures is certainly commendable.
Recommendation: If you love feeling extremely happy and grinning ear to ear, you’ll likely find a lot to love here.
Rating: 3.5 friendship dances outta 5.
What do you think? Did The Peanut Butter Falcon have you wholly charmed, or did it leave more to be desired? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!