Fueled by LaBeouf and Gottsagen's screen chemistry, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes for a charmingly funny and often touching adventure.
There’s something deeply personal about Shia LaBeouf’s performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon. His character, Tyler, is in many ways a broken man; once a happy, clean-shaven lad who spent his nights bar-hopping with his brother (Jon Bernthal, always a pleasure, even in dialogue-free flashbacks), he’s a traumatized, scruffy crab fisher prone to violence by the time the film introduces him in the present. (The comparisons to LaBeouf’s much-publicized offscreen struggles in the real world write themselves.) It’s a testament to just how endearing the Peanut Butter Falcon himself, Zak, is that Tyler’s personal journey from whisky-swigging outlaw to nurturing and protective mentor never strains credibility in the movie, either.
Self-described as a "modern Mark Twain style adventure story", The Peanut Butter Falcon - an Audience Award winner at the 2019 SXSW - is a part buddy comedy, part idiosyncratic, yet heartfelt, odyssey through the U.S. South that lives up to the promise of that description. The scrappy hero at the heart of its story is brought to life by Zack Gottsagen, making this a frustratingly still-rare occurrence where an individual with a disability - in this case, Down Syndrome - is allowed to portray a fully-developed character on the big screen. As such, there's an authenticity and sincerity to not only the filmmaking here, but also its efforts to offer some good representation. Fueled by LaBeouf and Gottsagen's screen chemistry, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes for a charmingly funny and often touching adventure.
Gottsagen, as Zak, has a rebellious spirit that would indeed make Huck Finn proud; left without a family, he spends his days either trying to escape his tedious life at a retirement house - with more than a little help from his fellow residents - or rewatching an old VHS tape featuring his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), and dreaming of attending his wrestling school. When he finally manages to break out (in naught but his underwear), Zak unexpectedly crosses paths with Tyler, who's only recently gone on the run himself for reasons involving arson and an angry fellow fisherman named Duncan (John Hawkes). And as unlikely a duo as they might be, the bond that forms between them is genuinely moving and sweet without ever becoming saccharine or resorting to unearned sentimentality.
Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (both making their feature debut), The Peanut Butter Falcon follows these "fugitives" on a journey that brings them face to face with an eclectic assortment of Southerners, even as they travel on foot or by riverboat. The film was heavily informed by Nilson's memories and experiences living in North Carolina (though it was actually shot in Georgia), and it shows; far from feeling like a tourist's guide to the American South, the movie's setting is a rich and textured world of swamps, deltas, and tall grass painted in warm shades of green and brown by DP Nigel Bluck (who, as illustrated by his previous work on True Detective, knows this region all too well), and further enhanced by the beautifully rustic soundtrack and score from Zachary Dawes, Noah Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, and Gabe Witcher. As far as first time efforts go, it's enjoyably assured and confident in its tone and general style.
That's not to say the film is without its shortcomings; as much as The Peanut Butter Falcon is an offbeat work of indie cinema, it's still drawing from the tried and true tropes of the road movie genre, and ultimately finds its way along a familiar path. Similarly, a number of the supporting players here teeter on the edge of being stereotypes - but come off as real people in the hands of such capable talents - and Dakota Johnson isn't afforded quite the same amount of time and attention as her co-leads, even though her character (Eleanor, the gentle nursing home employee who's tasked with bringing Zak in) is essential to the movie's emotional core. Nevertheless, its overarching message about the importance of families formed, coupled with its sympathies for the plight of its marginalized and/or troubled protagonists, makes these flaws all the easier to accept.
In addition to being a warm-hearted and refreshingly personal alternative to the more generic and corporate-minded tentpoles of the summer, The Peanut Butter Falcon makes a star out of the delightful Gottsagen, and may even herald the beginning of the incoming LaBeouf-aissance (ahead of his already acclaimed autobiographical drama, Honey Boy, hitting theaters later this fall). The film's lovely rural visuals and scenery alone makes it worth checking out on the big screen, but it's also the sort of performance-driven offering that, of course, can still be appreciated at home by those who don't get the chance to see it in theaters. Those who do, however, are encouraged to hop aboard this cinematic river raft and follow its heroes on their winding, wondrous voyage.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 93 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking.
- The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) release date: Aug 09, 2019