In a summer dominated by CGI superheroes and cartoon adaptations, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a beautifully uplifting tale of humanity and friendship. A modern riff on Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn", three unlikely people embark on an adventure that transforms their lives. Character types rarely seen on film are shown with extraordinary depth and feelings. They remind us how far kindness and understanding can take you in life. The Peanut Butter Falcon will make your heart soar.
In a North Carolina nursing home, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a friendly young man with Down syndrome. Abandoned by his family, Zak is a ward of the state and cannot leave on his own. He yearns to escape his confines; and attend the wrestling school of his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Zak's attempted jailbreaks are thwarted by the kindhearted Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a social worker at the facility.
Shia LaBeouf co-stars as Tyler, a bereaved fisherman struggling to make ends meet. He runs afoul of local crabbers (John Hawkes, Yelawolf) by stealing from their traps. On the run after an act of revenge, Tyler bumps into another outlaw of sorts. Zak has successfully flown the coop, but is alone and innocent. He's on a mission to meet The Salt Water Redneck. Back at the nursing home, Eleanor is desperate to find Zak. She's given a brief mandate to search for him before the police are involved.
Zak unlocks a part of Tyler that was drowning in regret. Their burgeoning friendship leads to a ray of happiness parting clouds of emotional darkness. Zak overcomes his fears and self-doubt. For the first time in his life, he is treated with respect and allowed to express his desires. Their initial scenes together are exquisitely acted. What could be sappy melodrama is genuine and captivating to see. Shia LaBeouf's range in this performance is simply remarkable. He guides Zack Gottsagen by giving him an equal footing. There is a dynamic give and take that endears the characters to each other. When Dakota Johnson's Eleanor witnesses how much Zak has grown, she can't help but become enamored by Tyler's gentle roguishness. The Peanut Butter Falcon has superb character exposition.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is relatively short in length, but loaded with nuance. Filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz delve into their setting and characters. The backwoods, farmlands, and rivers of North Carolina become an integral part of the story. The environment defines critical aspects of the characters journey. I honestly cannot think of a film with better writing for an actor with Down syndrome. Nilson and Schwartz don't use Zack Gottsagen as a prop for pity. Anyone who ridicules or patronizes the developmentally disabled will learn a critical lesson from this film. Treat people with respect and you'll be surprised what they can teach you.
The Peanut Butter Falcon won the Audience Award at this year's SXSW Film Festival. It's a true crowd-pleaser from start to finish. A few scenes wax fantastical, but that's part of the film's luminous appeal. Shia LaBeouf continues to be one of the best actors in independent cinema. His work over the last three years has been sublime. The Peanut Butter Falcon will be released theatrically on August 9th by Roadside Attractions.