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The Peanut Butter Falcon is an awkward name for an amazing movie. Don’t get me wrong. The movie’s title makes complete sense in context, and when you see it – because you really need to see it – the choice will strike you as affectionately peculiar but undoubtedly sweet. However, I can picture casual moviegoers staring up at the board of their local arthouse figuring out what to spend time and money on, and being perplexed by the Peanut Butter Falcon. But hopefully, also, intrigued enough to give it a try.
What they will find is an earnest, honest friendship story that earns the comparisons being made between Falcon and the timeless, rambling plottings of Mark Twain. In place of Huckleberry Finn, The Peanut Butter Falcon co-writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz introduce Zak, a constricted young man with Down Syndrome who dreams of breaking free.
Refreshingly, Zak is played by newcomer Zack Gottsagen, a fledgling actor who also happens to have Down Syndrome. The Hollywood take on The Peanut Butter Falcon would cast a Disney Channel pretty boy in the lead in hopes of catching Oscar’s attention with a showy, potentially scenery-chewing performance. But Gotttsagen’s performance is naturalistic, especially when he’s paired with the surprising number of powerful character actors in this cast, and the movie shuffles along as Zack goes.
As the story goes, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met and befriended Gottsagen while volunteering with the Down Syndrome community. The actor expressed interest in becoming a silver-screen star, and knew that the two collaborators had worked on short films in the past. Nilson and Schwartz knew they’d need to complete the film themselves if they hoped to keep Gottsagen in the lead, so that’s exactly what they managed to do.
The plot of The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t matter as much as the mood, atmosphere and southern-fried environment it creates on screen. After freeing himself from a retirement community thanks to some assistance from his senior-citizen roommate (Bruce Dern), Zak embarks on a personal journey. He’s eager to reach a wrestling school run by The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), but in order to get there, he needs to stay one step ahead of the concerned counselor (Dakota Johnson) who just wants to bring Zak home safely.
The movie finds its groove once Zak crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who serves as the Tom Sawyer to Zak’s persistent Huck. A troubled crabber with too many skeletons in his closet, Tyler has beef with some disgruntled Outer Banks country boys (led by the brilliant John Hawkes) and needs to stay off the beaten path. He sees Zak’s quest as a reason to both help a man in need, and make his way down to Florida, for potentially greener pastures.
Again, “why” these disheveled souls are bonding proves infinitely less interesting than “how” they forge a friendship, and LaBeouf deserves the lion’s share of the credit for being the ideal audience surrogate when coping with Zak. Tyler is initially hesitant, eventually patient, repeatedly frustrated and ultimately compassionate, in exactly the proportions that the story – and the audience – need him to be. You can tell that The Peanut Butter Falcon spent a lot of time off script, allowing LaBeouf and Gottsagen to explore a scene or find a rhythm, and their interactions give this drama the soul that helps it stand above similar homegrown “road trip” stories.
Rambling movies can lose focus very quickly, but Nilson and Schwartz understand pace, as well as how to catch an audience’s eye with an unexpected camera angle or improvised shot. Coastal Georgia gives them plenty of breathtaking scenery to shoot as Zak and Tyler’s backdrop, but Peanut Butter Falcon also stuns with the thought that goes into certain compositions, from a handful of aerial shots to a gorgeous profile shot that makes it look like the two leads are walking on water.
Fitting, as movies like The Peanut Butter Falcon are minor miracles in today’s day and age. Familiar IP means multiplexes overflow with recognizable stories starring Men in Black, the mighty Avengers or a live-action version of an animated Disney staple. The Peanut Butter Falcon acts as a pleasant, warm-hearted reminder of a bygone age when audiences took chances on those unusual-sounding, character-driven human dramas, and often were rewarded for the risk.