To imagine a film with a title like The Peanut Butter Falcon, on the surface could be considered as nothing more than an awkwardly embarrassing childhood fallacy. And yet it’s the title to one of the sweetest, most solemn, compelling films of the year. And when it makes sense as to why we have a title like The Peanut Butter Falcon, it really is more than a nickname. It contains a flavor that’s a bit nutty, salty, just the right amount of sugary. And yet, it manages to soar very high, up to the clouds on its incomparable sense of humor, and infectious adversity-fighting spirit.
Our protagonist Zak (newcomer Zack Gottsagen), a 20-something coping with Down Syndrome, is desperate to fight his way out of personal stagnation. He’s essentially stuck in a long-term care facility in South Carolina, housed by the state after all other options have failed him. His only solace and comfort is through smuggled VHS tapes of performers in a local wrestling circuit, and the antics of his idol, nicknamed The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). With the help of casual old coot Carl (a sadly underused Bruce Dern), Zak seeks his life’s passion to join the ranks of his wrestling heroes at a prestigious training academy a few hundred miles further south.
Along that way, he crosses paths with a scruffy, rebel named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). He’s a luckless crab fisherman on the run from endless trouble, his closest competitor (John Hawkes) determined to hunt him down after a property violation. No surprise, Zak is also being tracked down by his doting social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). The pair need to lay low, they’re misfits with bad pasts looking for a better life, and they each have places to get to in a hurry. So of course, they will reluctantly form a bond to better each other’s chances of surpassing their unique goals.
Writing/directing duo Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz fill Falcon with a folksy, compassionate aire inspired by the homespun verses of Mark Twain. Think of it as your standard Tom and Huck tale, mirrored to a T, only ruder, and with far more bodyslams. That aspect only grows in familiarity the further we go, even going so far as the duo building a makeshift raft. That alone made for some of the most compelling single shots throughout the whole film, several of many which cinematographer Nigel Bluck (Ladygrey) captures with the effervescent poise of a National Geographic photo spread.
Zak and Tyler are like an accurate artist’s model of an unfiltered friendship. Neither of them see eye-to-eye, but they maintain a purely symbiotic relationship, where neither can truly experience life wide-open nor survive, without the other. That reasoning’s only put into practice further when we see Zak cannot swim, or when Tyler’s attempting to woo eventual third-wheel Eleanor, requiring the two to really get creative when the moment calls for it. And that same creativity runs real circles through Nilson and Schwartz’s eagerness for a grand, mid-budget, character-driven adventure. Through Gottsagen’s performance, all those criteria are easily fulfilled. He is a natural-born performer, whose humor derives from the momentary, labeled with a deadpan-ish edge, and whose boundless energy proves valuable when a scene is more solemn, profound.
LaBeouf is also in top form here. Sobering lows of his career firmly in the rearview, he commits to a cozy renaissance of a performance, cocky yet still unafraid to bare his teeth when feeling the stain of an awful bitterness. Like Shia’s own past demons, Tyler is dealing with his own: constant run-ins with the law, and his inability to let go from the loss of his older brother, something he still resents in himself, assured it could’ve been prevented. Channeling that raw emotion with a touch of humility, LaBeouf is a true winner like many a role before. Falcon is a little different, in that it offers him a small chance to prove his compassionate side has not been lost with the years. If anything, it’s blossomed more through his chemistry with the plucky Miss Johnson, a wonderful middle-ground once her guard’s been let down.
But LaBeouf with Gottsagen, their shared wattage is like nothing else on film. This is how an on-screen friendship ought to represent: looking out for each other, with great respect for one another, but also knowing how to be casual, when to be serious, and why their objective bears any importance. Even when the written material wavers on the hokey, and there are a few occasions when staleness is a concern, they still shine brightly as unsung heroes. That, and we’re also seeing the best out of Thomas Haden Church in years, his wrestling persona replaced in the third act by a simple man relishing in semi-retirement, fragile yet still compassionate to assist Zak in his character evolution. He was a joy to watch, a mere shame there wasn’t more of him to be worked in, perhaps with additional taped footage. But we’ll settle for Church buddying up with WWE legends like Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and even Jon Bernthal’s thrown in for good measure during the pivotal ring sequence marking Zak’s formal debut.
Complete with a poignant country/indie rock soundtrack, The Peanut Butter Falcon relishes deep in its own self-faceted joy, propelled by a strong character study in Gottsagen, mirroring his own goal to become a serious actor, despite his daily struggles with DS. The smart choice was made in not making the syndrome a large enough plot device that it develops into its sordid stereotype. Instead, we get a protagonist who, despite a few extra challenges on the daily, is just as much human as his able-bodied companions, if not more. And we need more films like Falcon to remind us that maybe humanity isn’t completely lost after all. Folks like Zak are showing the rest of us how to properly live life, oftentimes like the flow of a lazy river, other times with the fury of a fighter just before the bell. If you know Twain’s work, it may end a similar way, but the journey to get there will be very much worth admission. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up)
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in wide release this weekend, including a number of theaters in the Seattle area north and south; rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking; 93 minutes.