Films such as The Peanut Butter Falcon are tricky when it comes to setting the proper tone and treating its subject and story with respect. Centered on a young man with Down syndrome, works of this sort run the risk of being too cute and using characters as punch lines or becoming so melodramatic that the situations and those involved come off as deified. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who wrote and directed this feature, manage to avoid most of the pitfalls inherent to movies of this sort and deliver a film that, while at times ridiculous, proves a vital and necessary work for our times.
Tyler and Zak (Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen, respectively) are two young men with more than their share of problems. The former has hit hard times since his brother and business partner (Jon Bernthal) was tragically killed. Working as a fisherman on the North Carolina coast, he’s let his license lapse and is now forced to steal from his rivals’ traps, living hand-to-mouth. The latter has been abandoned by his family and is living in a retirement home, his Down syndrome making him an outsider among the elderly residents.
However, Zak has a plan, as he wants to head south to meet his hero, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), an amateur wrestler who has a training camp he longs to attend. One night, he makes his escape, which prompts his social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), to set out and find him.
Of course, Tyler and Zak’s paths cross and however improbable, they set out on an adventure in which each is seeking a new beginning. The comparisons to Huck and Jim’s famous journey, as this pair steal through riverside communities and eventually fashion a boat of their own, are plain, as is the relationship and themes of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Nilson and Schwartz wisely allow the bond between their two main characters to develop gradually, which has an organic feel to it, thanks to the fine work of LaBeouf and Gottsagen.
Redemption and renewal are the overarching themes. Tyler has been shattered due to a recent tragedy, without purpose, one meaningless day melting into the next. He comes to care for Zak in a genuine way, his new friend’s dream becoming his own. As for Zak, his is a quest for identity. Told again and again he is dumb and of no use, his desire to become a wrestler is a search for purpose and along the way, his confidence grows. It’s a simple story but done with a sense of sincerity that proves touching.
Johnson’s character is woefully underwritten during the first half of the movie and that the actress is able to give her any depth is a testament to her ability. And as improbable as a relationship between Tyler and Eleanor may seem, LaBeouf and Johnson handle their scenes together deftly, never rushing, listening and taking in the other so that what develops between them seems natural.
To be sure, the film requires a leap of faith where its logic is concerned and, there are more than a few improbable moments that threaten to break its spell. No matter. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the sort of movie we need right now. It reminds us that simple acts of kindness are what prevent the world from totally spinning into chaos. If we are to survive the ever-increasing madness of our world and those who run it, it’s crucial that we look out for one another. This work reminds us that this is a simple course of action and that its dividends benefit us all.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.