Inspired by classic Southern Twainesque folk tales, the writer-director duo—Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson craft an unorthodox buddy comedy, The Peanut Butter Falcon, amalgamating the leading actor’s aspiration and Huckleberry Finn’s narrative. The breakout star of this SXSW darling is Zak Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, who encountered Schwarts and Nilson back in a camp for disabled actors around 2011. Gottsagen makes an unlikely pair with Shia LaBeouf, who continues his staggering performance streak. It’s a story of two ‘fugitives’ embarking on an uplifting road trip that resonates all the adventure mood of American classic stories to the modern world
Gottsagen is Zak, a young man with Down syndrome, who lives in a retirement house since his family left him. Young Zak is obsessed with becoming a professional wrestler and attending the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose videotapes he watches religiously. Meanwhile, LaBeouf is Tyler, a troublesome fisherman, who attempts to cope up with the grief of losing his brother (Jon Bernthal). Fate intertwines Zak and Tyler when the former successfully escaped from the facility while the latter is on the run from crabbers (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) whose fishing equipment he damages.
In a lesser story, The Peanut Butter Falcon might simply become a Southern gothic (like, Mud or Joe, recently) or a melodrama, however, it manages to bypass the potential sappiness and over-exploitation of its disabled character with oddball yet optimistic humor. The movie holds its utmost credo—friends are the family you choose—dearly as Zak starts to bond with Tyler. Parts of the plot might feel magical, but it’s the quirkiness and the uplifting sensation that make this road trip delightful to follow.
Albeit different physically, Zak and Tyler actually reflect each other. Both “fugitives” find solace in each other. Zak finds a mentor in Tyler who helps him to toughen up and makes him believe that he is able. Meanwhile, Tyler finds a lost brother who doesn’t judge and sees him as himself in Zak. As the unlikely duo forms a heartwarming bond, a social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria), is tasked to find Zak and bring him back. Johnson’s Eleanor becomes a perfect catalyst to fuel Zak and Tyler’s budding bromance.
Each scene flows pleasantly as the party (soon Eleanor will join and make a trifecta) flees to the town where Salt Water Redneck’s school is supposed to be. LaBeouf’s Tyler is an interesting character. He learns a lot from his deceased brother and he forwards his lessons to Zak. The movie’s buoyant and optimistic tone helps it avoiding the tearjerker zone; even the movie has, actually, some pivotal scenes that feel sentimental. The allusion to Huckleberry Finn’s story makes the whole narrative seems too good to be true. But, hey, if it can embrace the spirit of cinematic escapism with such positivity, why not?
Gottsagen is a real find. His acting, albeit raw, is sincere and aspiring. He makes interesting chemistry with LaBeouf, who apparently loves to get himself dirty (Nymphomaniac, Fury, Man Down, American Honey, and the list goes on). It’s impressive how they both portray characters with contrasting personalities, which complete each other. Gottsagen’s Zak might look weak, but his positive nature hooks our sympathy all the time. Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s Tyler, while tough, is fragile inside. In one scene, Tyler will break down into tears and Zak will comfort him non-awkwardly. On some other time, when Zak is in doubt about his wrestling ability, Tyler strengthens him and solidifies Zak with the moniker, Peanut Butter Falcon.
Short but assuring performances by real-world wrestlers like Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts add certain kind of oddity which can only work in a story such as it is. In the end, it’s Zak Gottsagen’s earnest performance and Shia LaBeouf’s committed act that injects The Peanut Butter Falcon with the strength that makes it one of the most solid movies in 2019.