VOD film review: The Peanut Butter Falcon
Leslie Byron Pitt | On 29, Feb 2020
Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church
More often than not these days sleeper hits are habitually more interesting than the larger movies that we’re all meant to rave about. They are the films that leave morsels of humanity, while the epic movies save the world once more in massive, scoffing bites. They are the movies off the beaten track that catch you off guard. The Peanut Butter Falcon is that kind of movie. Enjoyable in its earnestness. Never too sweet to hurt the teeth.
The film tells the tale of Zak, a 22-year-old man with Downs Syndrome who escapes from his residential nursing home to fulfil his dream of becoming a pro wrestler. Early scenes have the gentleman, played by talented actor Zack Gottsagen, slipping out the gates via a greasy plan with the help of the ever-engaging Bruce Dern. It only gets better from there.
The stowaway soon finds himself hiding on the boat of troubled tearaway Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who’s fleeing from ex-employers due to his penchant for stealing crabs without a licence. The two find themselves on the road to Florida, with Zak holding dreams from meeting his wrestling hero and attending his training school. All the while they are pursued by Zak’s carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a soft soul whose job is on the line if she doesn’t find him.
A backwater fairy tale at heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon wears its heart firmly on its sleeve. Its earnestness is merited in part by its casting of Gottsagen, who became the first actor with Downs Syndrome to present an Academy Award in February. After the filmmakers met Gottsagen and he detailed his desire to be an actor, the film was crafted around him. It shows. Films such as I Am Sam were dismissed for their mawkish portrayals of people with disabilities. Not here. Zak is never played as the victim. He’s not a character who makes other characters (and the audience) tilt their head in that ever-condescending way. His disability is one segment of his character, but not the only part of his being, and the film never pushes Gottsagen down into the despairing realms of rote, one-note blandness. He gets the funniest lines not because he’s “that character”; he gets the funniest lines because he is the funniest character. We see a young actor not only engage with his passion, but show his flair for it too, marking scenes consistently with warm humour.
He is surrounded by a cast who are not only well known but uniformly good. The annoying thing about the cinema world being enveloped by franchises is that it’s easy to forget how interesting some performers can be. LaBeouf’s placement in the Transformer movies hid his charming screen presence. LaBeouf and Johnson in an off-road general store is a simple yet playful example of how magnetic these actors can be. And while there’s a small worry the film might ignore its lead, Gottsagen is too fun to let you forget him.
A glimpse further down the cast list not only gives us a glut of solid character actors – Thomas Hayden Church! John Hawkes! Jon Bernthal! – it also reveals unexpected cameos that suit the backwater neighbourhoods the film scuttles around. Entertainers whose own personal histories add more layers to the film. Two people turn up within this movie who are pitch-perfect because of who they are. They’re not uncredited, but they are a joy to watch if you go in blind.
It’s not only the cast that is uniformly good. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz create a world that feels in love with its location. Many films observe rural America with a keen eye, and The Peanut Butter Falcon is another addition to the list, from God’s-eye visuals of characters trudging through marshland to cutaway shots that spend a little more time with the nature of the area.
If there’s an issue, it’s that the film is tidy with its resolution. But this is only because it loves who it spends time with. A lesser film could make all the wrong turns with a heavy hand. The Peanut Butter Falcon isn’t that film, though. It’s made with a light touch and a knowing eye. The laughs are loud but never mocking. The sentiment is sweet but never sickly. By the end of it, you shouldn’t forget this little film’s first rule: Party.