A seemingly mismatched road-trip buddy movie, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon is heartwarming and filled to the brim with humour and charm.
Mourning the loss of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to make ends meet and resorts to stealing the crab catch from other fishermen in order to survive. Caught red-handed, the fishermen (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) chase him down, and he’s forced to leave town. Meanwhile, Zak (newcomer Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome, is on the run from an elderly people’s nursing home in North Carolina – where, with no family or support network, he was dumped by the state some years ago.
Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and even though he has no money, map, shoes or even trousers, his escape has a purpose: to find the professional wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and train with him. After running away and arriving alone at the water’s edge, Zak hides in a boat – which just happens to be the vehicle with which Tyler makes a sudden getaway from the angry fishermen who are in hot pursuit. This serendipitous meeting between stowaway and outlaw puts the two on an unpredictable path together.
They set sail on a makeshift raft for Florida and the wrestling school Zak wants to join. This leads them down the waterways of the American South, through extraordinary landscapes and encounters with a succession of interesting strangers. Along the way, they form a close friendship – Tyler becoming a sort of life coach for Zak, looking out for him, and Zak providing the brotherly bond Tyler so clearly misses. Theirs is an unlikely friendship, and though their journey began with confrontation and difference, it opens out into understanding and affection.
As well as the angry fishermen stalking them, is also Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a compassionate but stubborn carer from Zak’s nursing home, who’s been sent to retrieve him, and she confronts Tyler for taking Zak so far away from his support system. But after Eleanor sees Zak’s joy in the adventure he’s having, the three of them form a friendship much like a family, and they continue on their trip together.
Written and directed by Nilson and Schwartz in their feature debuts, The Peanut Butter Falcon is unapologetically sentimental, but not entirely sugar-coated. It’s refreshing to see a character with Down Syndrome treated with depth and intelligence, in control of their own story and not being patronised. Gottsagen is truly a shining light, bringing a strong, wonderfully rich performance -and brilliant comic timing- as Zak to the film.
LaBeouf offers a perfect counterbalance, and with his brusque nature and tough-guy exterior belying his kindness and need for companionship, LaBeouf shows the extraordinary range he has as an actor. Between the two of them, there is real chemistry, and many of their scenes are deeply moving as well as funny. Inspiring and uplifting, this feel-good tale’s ending may not have its roots in realism, but with its heart very much in the right place, the journey is joyous.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack