Sometimes, you can tell from the opening moments of a movie if a filmmaker has “it”. The Peanut Butter Falcon begins with Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome, attempting to escape from an advanced age care facility in North Carolina. He conspires with an elderly woman, who pretends to choke on her pudding, to distract the security staff as he makes a run for it. Just outside the door, he gets tackled out of nowhere, and the film cuts to black. In this sequence alone, we learn so much about our main character and the filmmaking style tells us that Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz have made an auspicious feature debut.
Zak dreams of a better life for himself. Despite the loving care he receives from Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a case manager at the facility, he dreams of a career as a professional wrestler. He obsessively watches an old VHS cassette of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), hoping to one day enroll in his Alabama wrestling school.
Played by the remarkable Zack Gottsagen, Zak eventually does escape, with the help of his roommate Carl (a terrific cameo by Bruce Dern) and stows away on a small boat. Meanwhile, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman, has his own set of issues. With his brother recently killed, he struggles to make ends meet, commits robbery and arson against a couple of bullying rivals (John Hawkes as Duncan and Yelawolf as Ratboy), and plots his own escape to Florida via the same boat on which Zak hides. Their chance encounter leads to a Huckleberry Finn-style odyssey as they make their way through the Deep South and form a deep bond. With Eleanor charged with finding Zak and the bad guys hunting Tyler, we have a fairly propulsive storyline yet the film finds a gentle rhythm nonetheless.
The filmmakers, along with their extremely talented cinematographer Nigel Bluck, create one incredible image after another, giving us a perfect sense of time and place. I particularly loved when Tyler eludes the bad guys, a superbly suspenseful boat sequence which expertly lets us know where everyone is and uses silence and smart film editing to tell the story. Shots of our leads sitting on a dock or sweetly patting each other on the face go a long way toward seducing the audience with its laconic yet playful tone.
Gottsagen gives a commanding, nuanced performance, never allowing his disability to turn the storytelling into treacle. He has such surprising moments of humor, loneliness and frustration. All three of those come together when he stops an impatient Tyler from marching to shout at him, “I want you to know about me!” His presence clearly had an effect on his co-stars, as LaBeouf has never been better, more focused. He and Gottsagen have such a believable, natural chemistry, and it’s almost completely devoid of the cheap sentimentality which tends to deify a person with a disability. Zak can be a total asshole sometimes, and I’m so grateful the film makes room for it. Johnson also seems looser, more at ease than I’ve ever seen before. She gives a warm, but appropriately prickly performance.
It’s ultimately a tale about three lonely misfits who yearn to connect. We go on this journey with some well-realized montages and a strong sense of purpose. Although somewhat episodic in nature, you won’t soon forget the scene on the dock where Tyler confronts a mean little kid, or the flustered store owner who tallies Tyler’s bill. Is it just me, or does every good movie have a flustered store owner? I’m talking to you Paper Moon and No Country For Old Men! Even the name of the film thankfully comes from a smart, unpretentious place, but frankly it had me worried. Some indies go for ponderous, impenetrable titles. The Myth Of Fingerprints , Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), or Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, anyone? Luckily, The Peanut Butter Falcon mostly stays on its sweet, simple course.
Unfortunately, the film gets a little rushed and sloppy in its final act, delivering on its wrestling premise but shortchanging some of the narrative threads which could have landed the film a little more smoothly. The straightforward, generous style gives way to blackouts and fakeouts which come across as stylistic distractions. It’s a minor complaint for a film with such heart, spirit and refusal to go all sappy on us.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Peanut Butter Falcon gets a 0 out of 50. You may find yourself referring to the frequently shirtless lead actor as Shia LaBuff, but that doesn’t put anything about this swampy, twangy movie an inch closer to any of the rainbow letters. Hey North Carolina, Alabama and Florida! Where my Southern LGBTQIA people at?!!
By Glenn Gaylord
The Peanut Butter Falcon is currently in wide release in the US.