While franchise fare may have dominated much of the 2019 cinematic landscape, The Peanut Butter Falcon was an original surprise sleeper hit which broke through and connected with audiences in the US. And it’s no surprise why.
We follow Zak (Zack Gottsagen)—a kind-hearted young man with Down syndrome who lives in a retirement home after he was abandoned by his relatives and the state has no facilities to supply his needs. He’s looked after by a young social worker named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and rooms with retiree Carl (Bruce Dern), who has to put up with endless repeats of an old video tape put out by a wrestler named ‘The Salt Water Redneck’ (Thomas Haden Church). Zak eventually crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman who has a debt from some fellow fishermen on his back and they go on an adventure to find the wrestling school that ‘The Salt Water Redneck’ runs.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is such an enriching experience because it’s a film which wholly embraces the concept of empathy and understanding one another. There’s a rawness to everything from the relationship drama to the aesthetics of the locales that the film contains—it has a very rustic quality. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz make their directorial debut with this film and deliver something which plays out like a classic fable.
The way Zak is handled as a character is the make or break of this film. It’s important to note that Zack Gottsagen is an individual who actually has Down Syndrome. Thankfully, Gottsagen’s charismatic and frequently witty performance adds huge amount of heart to the proceedings. While it’s a heartfelt character, Zak isn’t a character who is solely there to be an inspirational figure within this story. This is his story and receives the most agency within it. He gets to crack jokes, be vulnerable, outspoken and just be active in this story, which was so incredibly refreshing and relieving. Zak is a character who just wants a brother and to see that bond form in classic buddy comedy fashion was fantastic. From a writing perspective, it was great to see Nilson and Schwartz not fall back on the cliché of Zak and Tyler not getting on until the end of the story. Their bond—while it can be shaky at points—is heartfelt and warm from just after their first meeting. Considering these are two characters who long for camaraderie and connection, it’s the wiser choice. There are definite comparisons which can be made to Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople and that’s certainly a good thing.
The film has got a very strong thematic core surrounding who we are as individuals. Zak believes that because he was abandoned as a child, it eliminates his chance of having a redemptive arc in life. It’s an incredibly sad story beat which ultimately becomes the crux of this narrative. Everyone in this story has heavy emotional baggage which they carry around every second, but it’s about how we accept others in the moment that counts. Nilson and Schwartz really hit home with the message of appreciating others based on their internal purity. It may not be a new idea in stories of this ilk, but it’s executed in a heartfelt fashion which gives that empathic edge to Zak, Tyler and Eleanor.
LeBeouf’s struggles are known in the public consciousness and it feels like he’s brought his personal baggage to this film in the best way possible. He imbues Tyler with a sense of optimism yet layered with an understanding of real pain below the surface. Of course, the source of such pain is revealed early on and it gives Tyler that layer of sympathy. It’s a very brotherly performance from LeBeouf, with Tyler acting as somewhat of a brother figure to Zak within this story. While I haven’t been able to see his acclaimed turn in Honey Boy (which he also wrote) as of yet, it’s my favourite performance I’ve seen from him to date. There’s volatility to his performance which perfectly suits the shedding he’s done of his movie star persona over the past decade. You buy every bit of the roguishness he’s able to give to Tyler.
Dakota Johnson continues her strong run after her brilliant turn in 2018’s Suspiria. Much like Gottsagen and LeBeouf, she’s able to bring a real level of humanity to her performance. Eleanor is a pure-of-heart character, but she carries weight which affects her, and she has to open her mind to new ways of thinking when embarking on this adventure with Zak and Tyler—especially considering she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Tyler in their first meetings. Again, it hits home with the main thematic message of seeing what one is about on the inside first. Thomas Haden Church comes in during the film’s latter half and is a real scene stealer, delivering a rugged and heartfelt performance.
I wouldn’t say that The Peanut Butter Falcon reinvents the buddy comedy genre, nor is it offering wholly new ideas, but there’s a real eccentric and positive energy radiating off the whole film which is undeniable. Overt sentimentality is only included when absolutely necessary, and when it is, it’s never grating nor over-the-top. And as much as this story feels heightened at points, it’s never showy or brash. Nilson and Schwartz simply bring a sense of authenticity and griminess to this tender fable. It’s a film which earns your tears. It’s also not a film which is about overcoming the obstacles of disability for Zak. As a whole, it’s about embracing who you are, forming bonds and living your life and your truth. I think that’s a beautiful, universal message to send.
The Peanut Butter Falcon hits select cinemas on January 30.