The story of America’s disenfranchised and disadvantaged in the deep south is the subject of many films. From Of Mice and Men to Winter’s Bone all tell stories of hard-bitten people living hard-bitten lives on the fringes. Few tell it with as much heart, gusto and warmth as The Peanut Butter Falcon does, however. It’s an excellent showcase for Shia LaBeouf’s intense, grounded style as well as those of its directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. But the real diamond in the rough is newcomer Zack Gottsagen as the young man with Down’s Syndrome who dreams of becoming a pro-wrestler.
22 year-old Zack (Gottsagen) is living in a retirement home but harbours dreams of becoming a pro-wrestler like his hero The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Aided by his octogenarian roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), Zack escapes. He hides out in a boat owned by Tyler (LaBeouf) who is on the run from the vengeful crab fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf). Chased and eventually joined by Zack’s carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), the three journey to Florida pursuing Zack’s dream as a misfit family.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is, first and foremost, predictable. It follows the formula of many an indie comedy-drama before it but that’s not a problem. The formula, after all, was created because it works and thanks to LaBeouf and Gottsagen it really works. Essentially an updated version of Huckleberry Finn, Nilson and Schwartz invest a kinetic, youthful energy into the film. No scene feels wasted and the duo’s script feels as lively as the characters it’s core cast has breathed life into.
LaBeouf, as in so many of his recent roles plays Tyler as a man on the edge, but luckily Zack comes along at just the right time. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to take the easy way out and make it about Tyler’s struggle but the film balances both stories evenly. Brief flashbacks illuminate why Tyler is so desperate and Jon Bernthal in a silent role as Tyler’s brother steals both of his 30 second scenes thanks to his sheer magnetism. Gottsagen’s matter-of-fact but sorrowful backstory is enough to root for him. His character’s sunny outlook would feel overly sentimental if it wasn’t for the sincerity with which he and the script treat it. It feels similar to the inherent grief within Johnson’s portrayal of Eleanor. In areas like the ones the film is set in despair and devastation are commonplace and it’s to The Peanut Butter Falcon’s credit that it addresses but never wallows in them.
As with most independent films of this kind the cinematography is also predictable but its golden hour shots and firelit night-time scenes maintain their own identity. Nigel Bluck’s camerawork feels unique and it’s tribute to wrestling ring fakery suggests that the film takes Zach’s chosen sport as seriously as he does. Alongside moving The Peanut Butter Falcon along at a good clip editors Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller make the characters feel connected by the camera which heightens brief scenes of stirring romance. It’s as if this was directed by a 20 years younger Alexander Payne – Tent is Payne’s go-to editor, funnily enough.
Perhaps most importantly The Peanut Butter Falcon never feels like its bowing to conventions or tropes. For as many as it incorporates into its script it tosses aside many more. When Duncan says “You’re not the only one that’s hard up around here” it shifts Hawkes’ initial dirtbag character into a moral grey zone. Reality can occasionally hit like the wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake the Snake that cameo towards the end but the film consistently asserts that Zack is emotionally and physically strong enough to not only carry this weight but Atomic Throw it over the ropes. The Peanut Butter Falcon may not be one-of-a-kind but it feels like it. It feels important. It’s a film worth cherishing.