A film review by Craig J. Koban December 9, 2019

RANK: #20

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON jjj

2019, PG-13, 93 mins.

 

Shia LaBeouf as Tyler  /  Zack Gottsagen as Zak  /  Dakota Johnson as Eleanor  /  Bruce Dern as Carl  /  John Hawkes as Duncan  /  Jon Bernthal as Mark  /  Thomas Haden Church as Clint / The Salt Water Redneck

Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz

On paper, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON comes off like an exploitative melodrama/buddy comedy road trip movie.  Its story is a deceptively simple one: A young care home residing man that suffers from Down Syndrome decides to break out and, with a little help from some new friends, seeks out a training school to become a professional wrestler.  

I grow dizzy just thinking about all of the ways a film like this could have gone so horribly wrong.

However, what greatly assists Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz's film is that it's quite exquisitely acted, richly and immersively atmospheric, and contains potent themes about new friendships, forming unlikely brotherhoods, and overcoming differences.  That, and THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a resounding triumph on a level of pure inclusion, seeing as the actor utilized to play the aforementioned Down Syndrome afflicted character actually has the genetic disorder, which is a most welcome relief, seeing as the industry has had far too many able bodied actors playing disabled characters for decades.  Of all of the films I've screened this year thus far, this one put the biggest smile on my face.   

There's also an undeniable literary influence that creeps up throughout THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, most notably the works of Mark Twain (the film's plot involving two souls on a long trek down south - and at one point on a homemade raft down river - has definitive echoes of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN).  The film elevates itself beyond the mere accoutrements of the road trip genre and starts to take on a vivid life of its own as a modern day fable.  And the film's wetland badlands locales gives it a unique flavor on to itself that helps proudly segregate apart from the pack.   

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is set in the North Carolina Outer Banks, giving it a distinctive bluegrass appeal that makes you immediately feel like you've been transported to a place that's frankly not covered in many contemporary films.  We meet the 22-year-old protagonist in Zak (Zack Gottsagen, a remarkable new find), who has Down Syndrome and had been living in a retirement care home for years, mostly because of state funding cuts that don't allow for him to be anywhere else.  Considering this and a fundamental lack of family support, Zak is a pretty positive minded and agreeable chap.  He has big dreams beyond the care home, though.  He worships at the altar of professional wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (a superb wrestler name, played by the equally superb Thomas Hayden Church) and someday hopes to journey out to his advertised wrestling camp to train to be just like him.   

 

 

Zak has one big problem: The care home he's in won't let him leave to be on his own, which leads to multiple failed escape attempts on his part.  One fateful night his BFF and elderly roommate in Carl (a delightfully mischievous Bruce Dern) devises a plan to get him out to secure his quest for his passion, which does succeed, but leaves his handler in Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) flabbergasted and fearing for Zak's safety and her job.  With Eleanor hot on his trail, the young care home fugitive manages to hide on a small fishing boat, which just happens to be owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, as good as he's been in years), who's not only dealing with his own issues of family loss, but also has resorted to petty stealing to make ends meet, which greatly angers the man he stole from (John Hawkes).  Realizing that he too needs to flee from home, Tyler begrudgingly allows Zak to accompany him down the North Carolina coastline and towards an uncertain  future, but one of personal freedom.  Along the way, both men become close, with Tyler deciding to help Zak on his quest to become the next big pro wrestling star. 

As mentioned, one of the strong selling points of THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is its environments, and the film is positively dripping with natural detail to the point where you can literally smell the marshes throughout.  Cinematographer Nigel Blunk somehow makes the film feel otherworldly despite being grounded in an earthbound reality, and the way that he and the directors in Nilson and Schwartz craft a wholly realized and distinct world from the ground up is to their esteemed credit.  The filmmakers' acute sensibilities here when it comes to the aesthetic look of THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is matched by their atypically sensitive approach to their flawed characters as well, especially when it comes to Tyler's emotional pains (stemming from past family trauma) and Zak's own developmental disabilities, the latter of which could have been sensationalized and/or shamelessly used for cheap audience manipulation.  The surprising aspect to this story is how it sincerely presents Zak as a real flesh and blood character that's not typified by his condition as it could have been in a lesser writer's hands.  And the budding friendship that he and Tyler forge seems organically derived, not mechanically produced because of some artificial plot requirements. 

This brings me to Gottsagen, a performer that was plucked by the directors after meeting him during a 2011 talent search for disabled actors.  This led to Nilson and Schwartz wanting to make a film built around him, which further led to a $20,000 produced proof of concept demo video made for the studio, which all but secured them a feature film budget for THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON and a greenlit.  Gottsagen's gives one of the most sweet, sincere, and engaging performances of 2019 as Zak, delivered with persuasive layers (he's not just playing a version of himself here) that relays a layered character, one filled with great inner strength and aspirations, but also one with insecurities and doubts.  Best of all, the screenplay and Gottsagen's winning performance doesn't make Zak unbearably adorable and inspirational, which could have come off as dramatically false.  Instead, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON respectfully presents him as a character that just happens to have Down Syndrome, and not the other way around where his condition is his own definable trait.  

He's flanked by the equally sensational LaBeouf, and it's easy to deride him as a celebrity whose very recent and public indiscretions have become the punchline for many a late night talk show comedian.  Movies like THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON go out of their way to remind all viewers of just how deeply committed and headstrong of an actor he is when given just the right juicy role to sink his teeth into, and his tender work as Tyler is a superb showpiece for his obvious talents.  And the unforced and natural on-screen chemistry that he has with Gottsagen helps further ground THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON in subtle, but pervasive layers of authenticity.  Rounding off this solid performance duo is Johnson, who also does a good job - like LaBeouf - of emphasizing that she's a better performer than what we probably give her credit for (she's been on damage control lately, trying to let good supporting turns in recent movie help us forget about how lousy she was in the FIFTY SHADES trilogy).  Still, the script does somewhat disappointingly betray what Johnson brings to the table here, especially for how she becomes a romantic interest for Tyler, which never quite feels necessary or earned. 

In terms of other criticisms, I'd suggest that sometimes the episodic nature of Tyler's and Zak's travels kind of aimlessly meanders at times, and the film does indeed careen towards a climatic third act that you know - you just know - will have Zak assume his much desired role as a gladiator in the squared circle, but the payoff of this moment builds towards a would-be triumphant and uplifting moment that feels like it's been plucked from a whole other movie altogether.  It's all more than a bit of a contrived cheat.  Still, there's so much bloody goodwill at play here in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON that I'm willing to forgive some semi-misguided storytelling beats used to close the picture.  Nilson and Schwartz have crafted such an effortlessly and genuinely charming comedy-drama, one that unexpectedly doesn't go for an aggressively saccharine vibe.  The movie has its heart in the absolute right place, and it creates one of the more appealing and affectionately rendered friendships in a long time with Zak and Tyler, both mutually using the other to emotionally prop themselves up to deal with multiple hurtful truths of their past and present.  Most importantly, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON forces viewers - and hopefully future filmmakers - to ask why Hollywood seems to incessantly fail in terms of getting proper disabled actor representation on screen.  This film totally gets it, and it should be applauded as a result. 

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