Film Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a comedy-drama film about a young man with Down syndrome, Zak, who escapes an assisted-living facility and crosses paths with a troubled thief and fisherman, Tyler, which sets the two on a bonding adventure across the Deep South in search of a wrestling school situated in Florida.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) share similarities which provide fuel for their dynamic throughout the film. Both are treated as outcasts in their individual environments, and both are running from and into problems which they seem unequipped to handle beside a firm belief that they can. At first, Tyler is resistant to Zak’s bold sense of friendship and charm, until he gradually falls into the realisation that the two share more than he originally perceives.

Tyler’s drive in the story is taking up the mantle of protector, once occupied by his older brother (Jon Bernthal) with initial reluctance until the bond between Zak and Tyler deepens to reflect the painful struggle of brotherly love. Tyler’s past is slowly revealed throughout the first half of the film, unveiled through a past-and-present blending scene featuring Zak and Tyler on a beach drinking; a definitive scene capturing the painfully genuine and sincerely heartwarming nature of the film.

Zak’s Down syndrome is raised a number of times, and Tyler’s initial address of this is to immediately look beyond societal sympathy and empathy and look at Zak as an equal, assessing his value and partnership on the ability to survive and provide; moving stealthily, procuring supplies, and learning to travel as a duo. A montage later in the film shows the two firmly cementing their friendship; learning to shoot guns, creating a special handshake, and running through a field wearing watermelon helmets – on the surface this all feels terrifyingly cliché, yet the film always maintains a genuine charm that elicits but never extorts enjoyment from the audience.

The music of The Peanut Butter Falcon is gorgeously reflective of the Deep South, with banjos and fiddles blending against the swamp bayous and sprawling, sand-covered fields the two tramp and journey across. There’s a beautifully rough and untamed aesthetic to the film – at times it feels unforgiving, but this is often just largely reflective of the world the story is set in. The film is also littered with stunning two-shots of the duo, which illustrate their unified struggle and the gradual closeness that the pair adopt over the course of their journey.

Eventually, Zak’s carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) catches up with the pair, and half-reluctantly tags along for the journey. While initially playing the responsible balance to Zak and Tyler with frustrating clinical reasoning, Eleanor eventually accepts the simple, stripped-back, live-in-the-moment mentality the pair have formed. Once the trio form their own bond, Eleanor’s attitude toward the journey adjusts as well, and provides a unique character struggle in balancing responsibility with what she feels is the truly right, human thing to do.

There’s something beautifully human about discarding a society filled with pain, judgement and boredom at its own rules – and there’s a powerful narrative about how we treat other people; that often our watering-down of reality and sympathetic caring is insultingly unhelpful when its comes at the cost of truly treating others equally, with the same level of genuine compassion if we were to disregard our ideas of weakness in others and not adjust our behaviour to compensate.

LaBeouf is as watchable as he’s ever been, and here occupies that rare space of character-actor genius you might find in Steve Buscemi and Harry Dean Stanton. I’ve always been a great fan of LaBeouf, and it’s a joy to see him fall so wonderfully and naturally into a role again. Gottsagen does a wonderful job of carrying much of what the film is asking the audience to fall in love with, and provides a perfect balance of humour, admirable strength, and self-aware joy from the opening frame to the closing scene.

Supporting performances by John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Thomas Haden Church all add their own small flavour of charm and individuality to the film, and round out a highly engaging cast which balances harsh reality with joyful fantasy abandon. A cameo by wrestling legend, Mick Foley, is a beautiful touch for any fans of hardcore, backyard wrestling.

Often, what we’re taught to believe is ‘right’ only applies for the majority, and The Peanut Butter Falcon champions the individual, showing the struggle that comes with accepting that and committing to that journey. It’s painful, heartwarming, inspiring, and absolutely beautiful – a film which reminds us of the importance in following our dreams, of living in the moment, and of the immutable and rare bonds we discover on that journey.

Dir: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz  Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church.

~Oxford Lamoureaux