THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
Photos | Armory Films
You have to be made out of stone to be unmoved by “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Crowds will be pleased by this exciting yet tender story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who is forced to live in a retirement home because the state has no place else for him. Of course his cantankerous roommate (Bruce Dern) helps him escape so he can pursue his dream of enrolling in a wrestling school. Of course he meets a damaged, angry young man (Shia LaBeouf) and they bond. This is just that kind of movie. And it is wonderful.
Tyler (LaBeouf) is a volatile young fisherman whose beloved older brother has died. In flashbacks, we see how he helped and guided his younger brother before and why Tyler is totally lost now. He burns through any residual goodwill from the hardscrabble fishing community by stealing crabbing pots and abusing the limited number of crabbing licenses available. So he decides to thoroughly and literally burn his bridges with his menacing rival Duncan (the always-excellent John Hawkes).
Zak crosses paths with them when he hides in Tyler’s boat and falls asleep, waking to Tyler’s desperate escape from Duncan. While Tyler initially bristles at the presence of poor Zak, who is wearing only a pair of briefs, he cannot help but warm to the brave young fellow. Tyler might be volatile, but when he witnesses what Zak endures from other people, his basic decency is awakened. Actor Zack Gottsagen has Down syndrome himself, and has studied acting and dance since he was a child. Co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote the film for Gottsagen after meeting him at a summer camp.
Gottsagen’s performance is hilarious and delightful, and he elevates LaBeouf, not just in the film but evidently in real life. LaBeouf is a talented actor, but all sorts of off-screen shenanigans — from wearing a paper bag on his head that said “I’m not famous anymore” to various arrests — have threatened his career. However, in interviews, LaBeouf has credited his friendship with Gottsagen for helping him stay sober. Life has imitated art.
The rapport between these two fugitives is the heart of the film. Zak is on a journey to meet his idol, a wrestler named The Salt Water Redneck (the also-always-excellent Thomas Haden Church), and Tyler decides to help Zak travel down the Eastern seaboard and get to Florida. Even if the plot sounds contrived, their relationship feels so real that it is utterly convincing, even when they go full Tom and Huck and build a raft to get them where they’re going.
Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, Zak’s caregiver at the facility who was responsible for him. Johnson is warm and sympathetic, and of course is dispatched to find him and keep him out of a terrible state facility. Tyler extends his charm offensive to Eleanor and everyone in the audience, and you feel like he has redeemed himself as his character and as a real-life performer. Of course, it is the strong arm of Zak that does so.
I feel like I was swept up by these two guys, and if you want your heart to grow two sizes, watch “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” I shudder to think what another actor might have done with the role of Zak, but Gottsagen starts from a place of authenticity and that gives him so much more to show us from there. He has bravery, humor and vulnerability, and both he and Tyler show us some truly refreshing depictions of masculinity.
When I hear that a film is “important” that usually triggers my avoidance impulse, but “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is the most delightful, important movie you could hope to see. While not a holiday film, it is the perfect experience for any season in which humanity is celebrated.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is currently available to rent.
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