With top performances from LaBeouf, Johnson and newcomer Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon brings together a surrogate family with plenty of kindliness.
Shia LaBeouf has had his detractors over the years – some for good reason – but, having now fully shed his fleeting Hollywood It boy status, the actor has accrued a cult following. Those that remember a young LaBeouf in Even Stevens know that he can be an electric screen presence, though A-List leading man never seemed like the right calling. His film roles have been more sporadic of late, more low-key. In Andrea Arnold’s American Honey he was terrific, as curiously engaging to the audience as he was the protagonist. In The Peanut Butter Falcon, LaBeouf plays Tyler, a down-on-his-luck fisherman who has to flee from local crabbers after spitefully destroying their traps. Fate brings him into meeting Zak, played by Zack Gottsagen, a young man with Down’s syndrome who has grown tired of the old folks’ home that the state has assigned him to – having no relatives to look after him themselves. What follows is a grand adventure through part of the American South, these strange bedfellows making for a charming buddy movie that has its fair share of both heart and laughs.
The feature debut from duo Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon starts with some clunky exposition dumping, Zak and Tyler’s respective tragedies spelt out to us plainly by those around them, but soon finds its feet as both men go on the run. Despite appearances suggesting otherwise, the parallels between the two are heavily drawn. Alienated by their surroundings, Zak and Tyler seek the same thing: disobedient of the authority figures in their lives, they both yearn for an escape – for a sense of freedom in whatever form they can find it. As the early shackles of narrative are loosened, their chance meeting gives way to a quasi-pilgrimage across the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In this analogue world, Zak’s limited connection to the universe outside of the residential home has been through an old wrestling tape featuring his hero, the Salt Water Redneck. Zak believes that the Redneck is still out there somewhere, and resolves himself to finding him.
Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, the care worker essentially responsible for Zak, who, after being tasked with recovering him, faces a dilemma over what is genuinely best for his quality of life. Johnson and LaBeouf demonstrate how good they can be in small, character-driven drama, as opposed to the Hollywood vehicles that kickstarted but have also partially blighted both their careers. They exude more onscreen chemistry in just over 90 minutes than either was able to muster with their romantic counterparts in multiple volumes of the 50 Shades and Transformers franchises.
It is Gottsagen, in his first major acting role, that steals the show. His comic delivery is impeccable. The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t patronise the character, largely eschewing platitudes and the saccharine treatment of disability. The film is sweet, yet these moments spring from the natural progression of the bond between Zak and Tyler. They don’t feel forced. One of the best scenes sees the pair, floating down the river à la Mark Twain (directly referenced, frequently evoked), using their hands to properly feel the individual features and marks on each other’s faces – as though they are seeing one another, for who they really are, for the very first time. Shot with the intermittent glow of sun through the marshy overgrowth, the film’s abundant empathy for its embittered characters is reflected in every morsel of its delightful being.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is playing at this year’s BFI London Film Festival as part of the Love Gala. It will be released in UK cinemas on the 18th October, distributed by Signature Entertainment, certificate 12A.