The charming and endearing new indie The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a young man with Down syndrome living in a North Carolina nursing home under the supervision of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
With the assistance of his wily roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes the facility one evening and stows away on a small fishing boat. We learn that the boat belongs to a rebellious fisherman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is on the run from rival fishermen for poaching their equipment.
Together, Tyler and Zak begin to bond with one another while making their way to a wrestling camp in Florida where Zak hopes to learn the secrets of the pros.
The film occupies a number of genres at once: it’s a buddy movie, it’s a road movie (well, sea movie might be more fitting), it’s a quirky dramedy, and it’s even a bit of a thriller. In its overall form, it mirrors the Mark Twain novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is referenced overtly in the film during a conversation between Tyler and Eleanor.
Despite these comparisons, The Peanut Butter Falcon paves its own way with characters that feel believable and with story twists that give it a unique sense of style. The title, which references the idiosyncratic wrestling name that Zak eventually gives himself, is perhaps the first sign that this movie marches to the beat of its own drummer.
The relationship between Tyler and Zak, which gets off to a rocky start but blossoms into a deep friendship throughout the story, is the key to the film’s heart and the actors do terrific work in crafting their characters.
In his first on-screen performance, Gottsagen brings loads of personality to a role that could have been one-dimensional in a lesser film. LaBeouf has never been better than he is here, effortlessly peeling back the layers behind his character’s gruff exterior to reveal a more vulnerable side.
As good as their acting is separately, the electric chemistry between both actors is the strongest single element of the film.
The writing and directing duo comprised of first-timers Tyler Nilsson and Michael Schwartz is working with a kind of story that we’ve seen before, both in overall form and specific moments. There are some cliches that are indulged and scenes that strain credulity even in a free-wheeling adventure like this.
Having said that, the dialogue is frequently incisive and cuts to the core of the characters while sharing wisdom and truth in the process.
Nilsson and Schwartz also make the most of their swampy South Atlantic locale, showcasing muggy, miserable conditions in one scene while contrasting it with the gorgeous, endless sea in the next.
The earthy cinematography by Nigel Bluck is both aesthetically pleasing and thematically relevant, using wide shots at the beginning of Tyler and Zak’s journey to depict the “distance” between their characters while moving in closer as the story progresses. The mix of bluegrass and folk music from acts like the Punch Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show settle in nicely to the background and fill out the sonic palette.
If you’re in the mood for a movie that will put a smile on your face and brighten your view of humanity, then The Peanut Butter Falcon is your ticket.
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