The Peanut Butter Falcon’s story might not be groundbreaking, but its existence feels revolutionary for Hollywood. Rarely are there films that features a character with Down Syndrome and present him as a character, rather than define him solely by the disability. The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t do that, instead spinning a heartwarming Twain-inspired tale of outlaw friendship and growth. I can’t say that any moment in the film surprised me- it plays how you would expect a “runaway” narrative to play out. Yet everything surrounding the core relationship between protagonists Zak (Zack Gottsagen) and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) feels raw, compelling and, from a fantasy perspective, slightly magical.
Gottsagen plays Zak, a 22 year old man with Down Syndrome confined to a nursing home. Abandoned by his parents and pushed aside by the state government, the only people concerned for Zak’s well-being are his nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and fellow housing resident Carl (Bruce Dern). His primary source of comfort and obsession is an old VHS tape starring professional wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church) who speaks of a wrestling camp where guys like Zak can train to get stronger. So, like a modern day Huckleberry Finn, he runs away from his oppressive environment towards this destination of freedom.
Yet en route to his destination, Zak stows away on the boat of Tyler, a fisherman in serious debt and mourning the loss of his own brother Mark (Jon Bernthal). Tyler isn’t too pleased to see Zak at first but, after a moment of reflection, realizes they’re much alike. He’s on the run from debt collectors’ Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf) after burning their fishing traps which, combined with Zak’s “prison break,” makes them outlaw buddies. A familiar premise no doubt, but Peanut Butter Falcon makes it work through one simple, yet radical fact: Tyler accepts Zak as he is. He makes it clear there won’t be any hand-holding on this mission, but there’s never a suggestion that Tyler’s irritated by his newfound partner’s presence.
Character moments that traditionally exist to spark unnecessary conflict in film don’t happen in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Zak mentions he doesn’t know how to swim and right after Tyler gives him some pointers. He asks if they could have a secret handshake and, rather than mock him, Tyler casually obliges. Their journey, for the most part, is defined by Zak’s desire to travel across North Carolina to meet his hero. Yet he’s also earnest and kindhearted, seeing the journey as an adventure that will give him strength against the world’s bullying. This wrestling passion comes full circle near the film’s end, which features one hell of a surprise wrestling cameo.
Hollywood has always struggled with disability representation- let’s not kid ourselves there. Characters with handicaps either fall into stereotypes of the hapless victim, antagonist or hero who overcomes their disability to live normally. Zak is none of those. He’s the protagonist, he has Down Syndrome and he seeks an overarching goal without ever needing to overcome who he is. The closest it gets to this is a scene where Zak and Tyler discuss the nature of “good guys” and “bad guys” in life, with Zak fearing that, if his birth family abandoned him, maybe he deserves the latter label. The film originated from Zack Gottsagen’s desire to be in a movie, encouraging directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz to make this project with him and frame it around more than just his disability. What we get is, to be blunt, a solid and endearing performance.
The authenticity of Zak’s journey ties into Gottsagen’s bonding moments with Shia LaBeouf, who gives one of his best performances in recent memory. Seeing him as Tyler, a man dealing with his own familial grieving process, makes you realize what LaBeouf is capable of when not Michael Bay-ified. He too feels like an outsider and, by using their mission to overcome his own grief, becomes a surrogate brother to help Zak overcome the world. Unfortunately that world is never revealed to the audience, instead conveyed through muted flashbacks that shockingly deprive a high-profile name like Bernthal of any lines. It mostly exists to showcase how well these two are developing their new family.
That’s probably The Peanut Butter Falcon’s biggest weakness: it excels at depicting the present but details of the past and side stories are somewhat murky. Big name actors appear for a few minutes before disappearing and even Johnson’s reintroduction into the second half feels rather movie-like. She still gives a good performance as Zak’s surrogate mother figure/love interest for Tyler, but its definitely the most tropey of the three protagonists. The antagonists pursuing Tyler never register as much of a threat, taking about as long as needed for us to watch more adventures of these three aboard their Huckleberry-style wooden raft. It attempts to explore the past here and there, but mostly in philosophical themes or throwaway lines. They work as needed, but some parts could have been further developed.
What stands out about this film is its visual flair, framing the North Carolina marshes like a Southeastern Mississippi River. The story is VERY on the nose with its Mark Twain influence, even openly stating it in one early conversation. It’s elevated, however, by cinematography that successfully juxtaposes the confines of society with the breathtaking freedom of nature, much like in Huckleberry Finn. It’s simple, yet effective, just like The Peanut Butter Falcon’s narrative of family. That simplicity lies at the heart of its central buddy dynamic, and it makes for some emotionally strong moments.
Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars
A familiar narrative doesn’t stop The Peanut Butter Falcon from being a touching drama with heart and solid chemistry between LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen. More importantly, it shows that cinema CAN provide authentic disability representation for a character beyond his condition. Hopefully Gottsagen finds more acting opportunities after this film, but the fact that so many big names were enticed by The Peanut Butter Falcon’s story shows how much his passion project touched them. I think moviegoers will feel the same.