Shia LaBeouf Returns In Top Form Alongside Zach Gottsagen Who Overcomes His Down Syndrome To Become A Breakout Star. Directors Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz “The Peanut Butter Falcon” Is An Affecting Human Dramedy, That Rarely Finds A Flaw. It’s Filled With Winning Performances, Smart Script & An Easygoing Direction. A Real Gem Among Summer Movies & One Of The Years Best.
2019 has been great for smaller independent films, or just films in general that don’t feature superheroes, big budget action films (while I’ll admit I loved “Hobbs & Shaw” and “Angel Has Fallen”) or anything that was released by the house of mouse (ok. i’ll also admit that I loved “Aladdin”). Despite my love for some of this years big studio films, the ones that I keep coming back to and that I still find myself thinking about days after I’ve seen it, are the smaller films like (just to name a few): “Fast Color”, “The Public”, “The Professor and The Madman”, “Late Night”, “The Farewell” and last but certainly not least “The Peanut Butter Falcon”.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” has already proven to be a crowd-pleaser within film festivals, including winning a key Audience Award at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. How it all began was when first time writer and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met a charismatic young man named Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome. They met Zach at a camp for actors with disabilities and were inspired to write a screenplay around him. In time, their passion project attracted studio producers and an impressive cast of actors.
Zach Gottsagen is an absolute natural on-camera, as he aces a role that was tailor-made for him, because it is him. You can’t get a performance more real than Zach’s. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a great representation in Hollywood for those with Down Syndrome. This is the first mainstream piece of work featuring an actor, since I can remember with Down Syndrome in a lead role since the TV series “Life Goes On” from the early nineties. Despite the films good heart, it also finds itself as an edgy road flick that celebrates its hero while staying realistic to his challenges and “The Peanut Butter Falcon” rarely ever hits a false note.
It’s hard not to see how “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is inspired by the works of Mark Twain. Zak, who has Down Syndrome has been abandoned by his family and has been housed at an old-age retirement facility in North Carolina because there’s no place else for him to go. He is looked after by the beautiful and caring Eleanor (played by Dakota Johnson), who has grown a special bond with Zak. But Zak has dreams and wants out of the retirement home to pursue those dreams. Along with Eleanor and his roommate Carl (played by Bruce Dern), Zak’s only real possession is an old VHS tape featuring his favorite professional wrestler known as Salt-Water Redneck (played by Thomas Haden Church), and he is determined to break out of the facility and make his way down to Salt-Water Redneck’s camp, where he can realize his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
With the help of his roommate Carl, Zak actually does escape but given he’s on the run in only his underwear, has no money and doesn’t know a single person in the outside world, navigating the few hundred miles to Salt-Water Redneck’s wrestling school will prove to be a challenge for Zak. That is until Zak crosses paths with Tyler (played by Shia LaBeouf) a dock worker and troublemaker on the run, who reluctantly agrees to take Zak along with him.
As predictable as you’d expect, Tyler and Zak become unlikely partners and friends. While on their journey, Tyler is being tracked by a revenge minded fisherman (played by John Hawkes) who is hunting down Tyler, and has no qualms about beating him senseless or even killing him. As Tyler discovers, so do we that perhaps Zak isn’t so fragile and dependent and helpless after all. Tyler can’t help but be worn down by Zak’s infectious enthusiasm and unfiltered observations. But throughout their journey, whether they’re facing great peril, having fantastic adventures involving booze, a gun, a self built raft and a Jesus preaching old blind man. Tyler refuses to make excuses for Zak or treat him like most other people do as a child or someone un-intelligent.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” doesn’t always stay intimate between Tyler and Zak. They are eventually joined by Eleanor, and while Dakota Johnson offers some of her best work, her character becomes a bit of a third wheel, especially when she starts appreciating Tyler in a more romantic light. Their evolving romance feels a little tacked-on.
Shia LaBeouf is back in top form, after keeping his distance from Hollywood and fighting his inner demons as he turns in one of the most sincere and effective performances of his career. LaBeouf hasn’t been this fantastic and this on key in awhile. I’m happy to see Shia back and I’m looking forward to more rich performances like the one in “The Peanut Butter Falcon”.
Zack Gottsagen delivers a funny, moving and consistently strong work as Zak. He’s so unique, bold, and funny that we get invested in seeing his dreams come true. It’s a legitimately moving performance as Zack plays it just utterly real, but also has an easy smile and sense of humor that keeps him from being a character we’re supposed to pity.
Dakota Johnson who is great in everything (that includes the “Fifty Shades” trilogy), is great here too as she evokes real kindness in the role. Like all of her roles when Johnson is in a close-up, the rest of the movie kind of disappears. She has great chemistry between Zak and Shia LaBeouf. The three feel like a real family unit. I also really enjoyed Thomas Haden Church as Chris aka the wrestler Salt Water Redneck, who turns out to be not at all like his wrestling persona. When his character makes a characteristic turn, I lit up with a smile and rooted for him and found myself saying “What a good guy”. I loved that moment in the film, you’ll feel it too when you see it. This could have been a one-note joke role, but Church gives him a real sense of humanity.
There are some harsh and heavy injections of reality injected into Tyler and Zak’s journey. The great John Hawkes is the films bad guy, who is truly bad, and there is no guarantee everyone especially Tyler will get out of this journey alive and uninjured.
Labeouf’s Tyler brings out the rebel and spirit of adventure in Zak and Eleanor but while this is essentially Zak’s story. Tyler becomes the real winner in the exchange, as they’re bringing out the best in Tyler, a man who had just about given up on his life.
The bonding in the script is well played out as Zak shares his fears and history of being bullied by others, cruelly dismissed by all. Tyler responds to such loneliness, returning vulnerability to form a brotherhood. Directors Nilson and Schwartz create beautiful moments of the pair as they lean on each other for support, giving the movie it’s giant beating heart. Nilson and Schwartz don’t try to turn Zak him into a joke, nor do they beg for our sympathy. Zak is his own man with a dream and he is determined to fulfill that dream.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is an affecting human drama with nearly no flaws starring big names including: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and Bruce Dern, along with wrestling superstars Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley. It’s film’s charismatic newcomer Zack Gottsagen emerges as a break out star and champion of the film, while Shia LaBeouf returns in top form. Along with this summers other indie hit “The Farewell”, Nilson and Schwartz’s “The Peanut Butter Falcon” emerges as one of the gems of the summer movies and one of the years best films.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)