The Peanut Butter Falcon
Directed by Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen
1 hr., 33 mins.
If you’re looking for a feel-good film with heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon might just be your ticket. In fact, if you’re audacious enough to put peanut butter in the title, you already have my attention.
Once again, the South shares its beauty in this travel tale set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Mud, the swamps and rivers become a place that invite you to find family and friendship and pursue a dream.
Like rivers and creeks, two tributaries merge into one story. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is without friends or family. Haunted by the death of his brother, he poaches illegally off the crab pots of fellow fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes). When Duncan violently confronts him, Tyler burns the man’s crab pots and flees down the coast. The chase is on.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is also without family. He has Down Syndrome and, for lack of anywhere else to live, he has been placed in a local nursing home.
Zak is obsessed with wrestling. His hero is the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). His dream is to be featured in the ring. He knows exactly what he wants, if he can just get out the door.
With help from his elderly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak finally breaks out and heads down the coast straight into the boat of Tyler. When Tyler flees from Duncan, he discovers Zak hidden under a tarp in nothing but his underwear. The journey begins.
Zak’s nursing home attendant, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), goes searching for him, and meets Tyler in a grocery store. She shows him a picture. Tyler learns that Zak is on the lam. He also learns that Zak wants to join the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school a couple of days down the coast. Zak’s plight intrigues Tyler. So does the possibility of meeting Eleanor again. The two men join up to travel to Salt Water’s school.
The Peanut Butter Falcon relies as much on its wits as its technology. It’s a loose attempt at storytelling, with some of it being made up on the fly. Nonetheless, it’s charming and humorous with tons of local color and interesting characters inhabiting the estuaries and swamps.
While Zak and Tyler share a common purpose, the problem in the film is what to do with Eleanor. Her role seems to be ill defined. When she joins the pack, it feels as if she’s the third wheel. When she and Tyler flirt with romance, the film threatens to go off the rails.
But thank Zak for grabbing the screen with his antics and his do-or-die quest. From shooting a rifle to learning to swim to being baptized, Zak is the force that keeps the story rolling.
As Zak and Tyler move closer to Salt Water Redneck, they drink whiskey and create Zak’s character in the ring. Zak wants to simultaneously fly, eat and party. Thus, the Peanut Butter Falcon. It’s funny. It makes sense. It’s perfect.
Add to this film the great soundtrack with songs by Henry Burnett, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, Gabe Witcher and other artists. It forms the perfect country and bluegrass backdrop.
I know it might be a stretch to convince someone to go see another road trip movie, but The Peanut Butter Falcon is not your typical road trip film. Beyond featuring an actor with Down Syndrome, it wrestles with assumptions about what people believe you can do based on their beliefs, not yours.
With some encouragement from Tyler, Zak challenges those assumptions. Refusing to be put out to pasture, he finds a path and doggedly fights for the spotlight.
As Dern notes, “friendship is about who you choose.” These guys choose each other because they like each other. I’m willing to bet once you see this film, you’ll feel the same.