The box office dominance of superhero action movies suggests we demand bang for our buck, and aren’t to be bothered with tenderness and empathy. Yet here The Peanut Butter Falcon is, ripe with kindness and a compassion that makes you want to wrap your arms around it and give it a big hug.
At the center of the story is Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a man in his 30s who has Down syndrome. With no family to care for him, he’s been cooped up in a retirement home for the last two and a half years. He’s well looked after by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), but his dream is to escape and attend a wrestling school run by The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). One night Zak’s roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) helps him escape, much to Eleanor’s frustration.
Now that he’s escaped, though, Zak realizes he has no money, and therefore no way to get to the Redneck’s training center. He stows away on a boat owned by a miscreant named Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), who needs to make a quick getaway after stealing from fishermen Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf). Tyler is not thrilled to have a guest.
At first Tyler is frustrated by Zak, who is slowing him down while he’s running for his life. Then a chance encounter between Tyler and Eleanor piques Tyler’s interest to keep Zak around a little longer, and in the process a symbiotic bond grows. Zak gives Tyler a connection, someone he can bond with after Tyler’s brother (Jon Bernthal) tragically passed away. Tyler gives Zak hope, and allows him to feel valued at a time when everyone and everything seemed to be working against him.
The film was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who are making their feature film directorial debuts. Lesser directors would have gone for melodrama, and played the emotions for all they could. Nilson and Schwartz don’t do that, probably because they realized they don’t have to. Understatement makes a bigger emotional impact.
Zak is so likeable and endearing that the director duo understood the audience should never pity him. He is treated like a man with a dream, and Tyler and Eleanor are the supporting players helping him achieve his dream.
It’s rare to have someone with Down syndrome with this pure a character arc, and the movie is special because it feels so believable. (To add to that believability: Gottsagen filmed many of the stunts himself, including jumping off a 30-foot platform into water.)
And what a cast! Nilson and Schwartz said they created a five-minute “proof of concept” video with Gottsagen, whom they met at an actors’ camp. Through that video they were able to recruit LeBeouf and Johnson, which led to Dern, Hawkes, Church and Bernthal signing on as well.
Not mentioned yet, but certainly important (especially to Gottsagen, who is a big wrestling fan), are the appearances of professional wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley.
There are predictable moments, sure, but with this cast and the genuine warmth of the story,The Peanut Butter Falcon is a must-see for anyone with even half a heart.
The Peanut Butter Falcon ( 3 ) Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz • Starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal • Rated PG-13 • 93 min. • At Osio Theater, Maya Cinemas.