The Peanut Butter Falcon | Tyler Nilson & Mike Schwartz | August 9, 2019
It seems that every summer you hear the familiar narrative about the lack of fresh original stories, which have been pushed aside to make space for the soulless sequels and remakes that are being churned out like sausage from the Hollywood factory. Yet ton of good, small, personal stories are released in-between the cracks, it just seems you got to look a little bit harder for them. The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of these small gems. It’s the directorial debut from the directing team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who also share co-writing credits in this small but heartfelt film about friendship, hope, and new beginnings.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen), is a 22-year-old with Down Syndrome, desperately trying to sneak out of the North Carolina retirement center that the state has placed him in because he has no family to take him in. He’s taken good care of by the facility’s aide Eleanor (50 Shades‘ Dakota Johnson) who wants what’s best for him, but the dreary atmosphere of the senior home is too much for Zak to bear. He dreams of being a professional wrestler after many years spent watching an old VHS tape of wrestler Salt Water Redneck (Hellboy‘s Thomas Haden Church) and manages to escape from the home one night with a little help from his roommate Carl (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood & Freaks‘ Bruce Dern), so he can embark on a journey to the wrestling school run by his favorite wrestler.
Not too far off is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who has been struggling with demons of his own who has to run away from his fishing job after getting into some trouble with fellow fishermen Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), with plans of starting anew down in Florida. Their paths cross on their respective journey and, although hesitant at first, Tyler allows Zak to accompany him on his journey south, promising to see to it that he gets to the wrestling school safe and sound.
Nilson and Schwartz have created a small and intimate road trip/buddy comedy that has all the heart in the world and puts it on full display in earnest fashion, shared wholesomely between the performances of the charming Gottsagen and the revived LaBeouf. At first, Zak does slow Tyler down and it feels like a babysitting job that he didn’t ask for. It doesn’t take long for Tyler to open up his heart to Zak’s endearing personality, and soon the two become surrogate brothers, who are an inseparable force no matter who comes looking. Whether it’s the well-intentioned Eleanor, making sure he is alright, or the more vicious nefarious forces of Duncan and Ratboy, hot on Tyler’s trail, these two aren’t leaving one another’s side.
There are aspects of The Peanut Butter Falcon that are no doubt familiar, but it’s constructed in such a genuine and wonderous fashion that you can’t help but fall in love with these two characters and enjoy every living minute that they are together on screen. Maybe the inevitable romance between Tyler and Eleanor is too predictable and cliche and you can see where the road to the Salt Water Redneck will inevitably lead, but Nilson and Schwartz cast such an illuminating eye on the relationship between the two men and it shines brightly in a golden light that will bring a smile to your face, the sort of antidote that we need in today’s climate. All their movements and interactions with the picturesque southern landscape are captured to perfection by cinematographer Nigel Bluck and with a musical score perfectly attuned to the southern setting with songs written by Zach Dawes, Noam Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, and Gabe Witcher.
Gottsagen shines brightly in this revelatory performance, holding his own against some pretty experienced actors. It’s great to see an actor with Down syndrome in the role, allowing him the chance to shine and bringing even more truth and humanity to the role. It’s been a tumultuous past few years for LaBeouf, who delivers a perfectly balanced showcase of empathy and understanding that is undeniable. Dakota Johnson helps complete this loveable surrogate family with a warm performance that perfectly suits the actor. Although underused, it’s always good to see Thomas Haden Church, as well as some wrestling cameos from greats such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley.
The Peanut Butter Falcon uplifts you with its spirited and grounded tale of an unlikely friendship that is completely endearing and charming all the way through. It’s a film about finding a new sense of hope and family when you least expect it. It’s tender, funny, wholesomely and completely sincere, with an unlikely pairing that absolutely tugs all the right heartstrings. This is the sort of movie Hollywood is sorely missing as of late, with enough cinematic wonder that isn’t meant to just be streamed online at home but also experienced in the shared space of a theater.