Released during the dog days of summer, when traditionally movie studios quietly slip films that they don’t have a lot of faith in, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a wonderful surprise. You’ve probably never even heard of it until now. That seems to make sense. Everything about this movie is about the strength of the underdog. It stars an unknown actor with down syndrome, another who’s personal odd antics have drawn more attention than his films and another who is known for starring in one of the most profitable movie franchises in film history and yet is considered some of the worst films ever made. It is also written and directed by two unknowns. Hopefully that will change real soon.
Tyler Nilson met Zack Gottsagen six years ago at a camp for actors with disabilities. He was so impressed and inspired by the young man, he and his writing and directing partner, Michael Schwartz decided to write a story written expressly for him and the result is the oddly-named The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Set in North Carolina, this quiet, beautiful film has been compared to a Mark Twain story and it definitely feels like one, but it’s completely original. The story begins with Zack, a young man with Down syndrome, who has no family and is cared for at a nursing home. After watching numerous videos of his favorite pro wrestler, Salt Water Redneck, Zack is convinced that is the life for him and dreams of attending the wrestler’s training school.
While he has made friends with the elderly and some of the staff, others still refer to him as a “retard.” Soon, Zack breaks out of the facility nearly naked and meets up with another down-on-his-luck character, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) who is still reeling from the death of his brother. Tyler resorts to stealing crab from other fishermen in order to survive. This isn’t a planned meeting and Tyler, who is on the run from the angry fishermen, has no desire to pick up a charity case along the way. But soon, his heart softens and allows Zack to join him as long as he follows his rules with #1 being “Don’t slow me down.” When Tyler asks Zack what number rule one is Zack replies, “Party.” Clearly the two have some work to do.
Meanwhile, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) a caseworker at the facility where Zack was living, is also on the run trying to find Zack and bring him back home in order to keep her job. Eventually, she catches up to the pair and because of a set of circumstances, has to join them on their journey to meet Salt Water Redneck before going back home. Thomas Haden Church plays the former wrestler who was a huge hit in the 1990s but now is a has-been. The film also features two real pro wrestlers, Mick Foley and Jake “the Snake” Roberts.
Though The Peanut Butter Falcon might sound like a screwball comedy, it’s not. It’s a comedy drama with a lot of heart about how three strangers influence and change each other’s lives for the better. Each of these characters see themselves as a “mistake.” Zack thinks of himself as a “bad guy” and somehow believes that because he has Down syndrome, doesn’t deserve a family. Tyler is living with guilt and kind-hearted Eleanor feels like a failure with her job. Throughout the story, different side characters encourage the three to turn back from their old life and embrace something new and better. One of these characters is a blind preacher who “sees” the truth about them. In the end, this is a film about redemption and has a better message than many faith-based films.
LaBeouf made a name for himself early on appearing on the Disney Channel show, Even Stevens and the 2007 thriller Disturbia. However, years later his personal life got in the way and people have forgotten what a good actor this guy is. He gives a very real performance as Tyler who up until meeting Zack forgot what it means to be kind. I’m also glad for Dakota Johnson, who has made a lot of money but not a lot of praise for her role as Anastasia Steele in the Fifty Shades of Grey film series. Here, her character is subtle, but effective. Thomas Haden Church is always fun watch. Of course, the star of the show is Zack who isn’t just playing a “Down syndrome character,” but a real one with heart, hurts and dreams. And the film’s title? You’ll just have to see why it’s called that.
I think The Peanut Butter Falcon might be appropriate for older kids as the storyline is pretty squeaky clean, but there is a LOT of language in the PG-13 film and most of it unnecessary. Fortunately, most of the swearing occurs in the film’s beginning so if you can handle that, you’ll be just fine with the rest.
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.