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Both onscreen and off, the catalyst for The Peanut Butter Falcon is a spirited young man with Down syndrome. First-time feature writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz (whose previous credits include short docs about Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo) met their leading man, Zack Gottsagen, at a camp for disabled actors and were inspired to put him at the center of a movie. His sensibility infuses the modern-day fable with an engaging forthrightness. But the unequivocal material often sticks close to the surface, and the film built around him, for all its physical sweep, can feel constricted by obviousness. It’s when it delves deeper, particularly in the layered performance by Shia LaBeouf, that this tale of an unlikely trio’s journey through the intracoastal Southeast stirs up billows of emotion.
The filmmakers’ spin on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn draws power from the off-the-grid world it inhabits — the river deltas and forgotten backwoods, framed in unfussy widescreen by Nigel Bluck (True Detective) — and also from the faces of its charismatic cast, some of whom speak only a few words, if any at all. They lend complicating subtext to the good-looking movie.
A performer and teacher as well as an advocate for people with disabilities, Gottsagen appeared in the 2014 documentary Becoming Bulletproof, and steps into his first narrative film as Zak, a 22-year-old escapee from a nursing home. In this story of three strangers forming a substitute family, Zak is without one of his own, or at least there’s no one who’s able to care for him. The state has placed him in a facility where he clearly doesn’t belong, though he has friends in a crotchety roommate (Bruce Dern and his patented petulance), who helps him break out, and in Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), the even-keeled volunteer who’s charged with finding him before the authorities discover that he’s missing.
Zak survives his first hours of freedom, not to mention the indignity of spending them in nothing but tighty-whities — not unlike an overgrown baby, but one with fierce determination in his eyes. He soon finds a traveling companion, guide and protector in LaBeouf’s Tyler, who, after some larcenous business involving crab traps, is on the lam from the law and from John Hawkes’ vengeance-bent meanie. Despite his predictable initial reluctance, Tyler is clearly charmed by Zak’s childlike innocence and gutsiness.
But more than that, more even than the unabashed affection between them, is the unsentimental way Tyler awakens to the connection, an awakening that’s exquisitely played by LaBeouf. At loose ends since the death of his brother (Jon Bernthal, seen but not heard in a couple of judiciously used flashbacks), Tyler needs this chance for brotherly expression. He needs to teach Zak to swim and to shoot. His pep talks with the younger man, urging him to embrace his inner hero, might be lesson-y too, but LaBeouf subtly animates them with the recognition that Tyler is addressing himself too, and searching for self-forgiveness.
For his part, Zak is seeking a very specific form of heroism: He wants to become a pro wrestler like his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Setting his sights on a new life in Florida, Tyler promises to drop Zak at the video star’s North Carolina wrestling school. Yet even with Hawkes’ venomous Duncan and his tattooed henchman, Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf), on their trail, there’s little suspense or heat in their journey through the Carolinas. Glimmers of dark undertow notwithstanding, it unfolds more as a storybook idyll, especially after Eleanor finds that she can’t beat ’em and, with no complaint, joins ’em on the raft they’ve built.
Their pilgrimage, as someone they meet calls it, takes them through a pure, sensory world, with handsome sunlit long shots of the improvised family at rest and play on the water — until all that unforced lyricism crash-lands in plot mechanics and the goofy, scrappy, utterly unglamorous world of Church’s character, who gets assists from real-life wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley. Faced with the endearing Zak’s adulation, Salt Water Redneck moves from wariness to eager engagement, a transition that mirrors Tyler’s.
The terrific scene in a general store where Tyler and Eleanor first cross paths (terrific even though he tells her, right on the nose, that Zak might be “living the American dream, like a Mark Twain story”) sets the tone for the odd encounters that pepper the odyssey — the movie could have used more of them. A seemingly abandoned house turns out to be the home of a blind preacher (a very good Wayne DeHart), who not only baptizes Zak and Tyler and gives them what they need for their raft, but also bestows a blessing to set them free from “the wolves of the past.”
Those wolves, in a drama that wisely keeps backstory to a minimum but whose simplicity sometimes borders on the simplistic, are more keenly defined for some characters than others. The specifics of Eleanor’s experience are especially pared down. Johnson is called upon to exude warmth, wisdom and grace, all of which she does with her typical magnetism, but “idealized female” isn’t enough, even within this tenderhearted narrative, and it’s disappointing how little the screenplay gives her to bite into. A detail or two more about Zak would have been welcome too. Still, Johnson and LaBeouf generate sparks as Zak’s clashing, flirting surrogate parents, and Gottsagen makes it easy to understand why they adore him.
But though The Peanut Butter Falcon takes its name from the wrestling moniker Zak comes up with one whiskey-fueled night, this is Tyler’s redemption story. LaBeouf holds the screen with natural allure, making every twinge of his character’s self-reproach, and every instant of his dawning joy, achingly felt. His nuanced performance propels this journey.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: Armory Films, Lucky Treehouse, 1993, Tvacom, Bona Fide
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, Wayne DeHart, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Mick Foley, Yelawolf
Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Screenwriters: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Lije Sarki, David Thies
Executive producers: Manu Gargi, Aaron Scotti, Michelle Sie Witten
Production designer: Gabrael Wilson
Costume designer: Melissa Walker
Director of photography: Nigel Bluck
Editors: Kevin Tent, Nathanial Fuller
Music: Jonathan Sadoff, Zachary Dawes, Noam Pilekny, Gabe Witcher
Sales: WME/Endeavor Content