Synopsis: A young boy with Down Syndrome runs away to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal
Director: Tyler Nilson & Mike Schwartz
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Coming off a summer chock full of movies that seemed to only love us for our money, it would be easy to approach The Peanut Butter Falcon with a tiny bit of wariness. Is this character-driven drama really asking us to just sit back and enjoy ourselves? Shouldn’t we be figuring out what supporting players will be getting their own franchise spin-off or deciding whether or not to stay until the lights come up in case we miss any post-credit stingers? Don’t we need to steel ourselves to debate with our friends and followers the merits of how well the screenwriter and director have brought a beloved character from the page to the screen? Not so fast. It’s with a grateful heart I can say that originality and a tender spirit are the key ingredients in this sweet film that has no ulterior motives.
I have to admit, when I first heard of this film the title didn’t exactly set my world on fire because I couldn’t ever seem to remember if it was a kids movie or not. I kept getting it confused with 1985’s The Peanut Butter Solution which, incidentally, was the first flick to include a Celine Dion song. Anyway, I hadn’t heard anything about The Peanut Butter Falcon because it largely flew under the radar on its way into theaters, buoyed by a strong performance at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX. I also should be up front and say I outright skipped several advanced screenings of it in favor of other more mainstream films but the good buzz on this kept coming back my way and so I turned a movie night with a friend into an opportunity to see what the low hum hype was all about.
Without a family to care for him, 22-year old Zack (Zack Gottsagen) lives in a North Carolina nursing home where he is looked after by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) and shares a room with Carl (Bruce Dern, The Hateful Eight), a wily man over a half century older than he is. Far too young to live the rest of his life surrounded by old people, Zack dreams of becoming a professional wrestler and train with his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, Hellboy). Though a high functioning man with Down syndrome, Zack doesn’t have the resources to live on his own so, for the time, being he has to stay where he is. After a botched escape attempt, Eleanor cracks down on Zack and finally puts bars on his window to prevent him from stealing away when no one is looking.
Nearby, local fisherman Tyler (Shia LeBeouf, Lawless) has gotten into trouble again for fishing without a license and winds up vandalizing the equipment of Duncan, a thorny shoreman (John Hawkes, Lincoln) that doesn’t forgive and forget. Escaping in a boat and pursued through the marsh by the angry fisherman, Tyler discovers Zack has stowed away on his boat, having escaped from the retirement home in the middle of the night with a little help from Carl. Though lone-wolf Tyler has plans to start over in Florida, he can’t leave Zack behind and finds some purpose and promise of redemption in helping him get to the wrestling school…even if it means a few extra days of avoiding potential violence from Duncan and his henchman.
Reviews have mentioned Tyler and Zack’s journey to the home of the Salt Water Redneck as a modern day Huckleberry Finn tale, something Mark Twain would have had great fun writing, and that comparison isn’t wholly off the mark. Heck, at one point the two men even build a raft and sail down the river like the characters in Twain’s stories often did. When Eleanor tracks them down and makes the duo a trio, it adds a new dimension to an already intriguing premise. Along the way they meet a blind man of faith that affords the film some honest-to-goodness soul stirring passages and eventually come to their destination which might actually be the start of another journey altogether.
Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have a little gem on their hands here and they’ve given it a fine polish. While the story might feel the slightest bit warmed over treacle at times, there are enough moments that subvert the expected and yield something more interesting. Though Johnson sinks believably into the role of an invested caregiver to Zack, the script wants her to take on another role for Tyler’s benefit that doesn’t feel as well-developed and certainly not as warranted. Thus, Eleanor starts to feel shoe-horned into the latter half of the film, like Nilson and Scharwartz expanded the role once Johnson signed on.
The best parts of the movie are watching Gottsagen and LeBeouf converse and react off of each other. I’m not sure how much of what is presented was the result of improv between the two or scripted developments but there’s a lightness and geniality to their quickly developed friendship that feels authentic. LeBeouf, often given to going too far inward in his roles, is fairly fantastic here, haunted by memories of his late brother (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant) and clearly far adrift in his life. Gottsagen, too, is an electric presence onscreen and by the time the movie reaches it’s apex we’ve fallen for his character so much that we want everything to go his way. Separately, the actors are absorbing but together they are dynamite.
Though Nilson and Schwartz biff the ending a bit with some confusing narrative choices and a final shot that I outright disliked, what came before it was an incredibly winning and rewarding night at the movies. It’s another film that, I feel, will play better at home because it feels like it wants to find a place in your heart. With it’s rich soundtrack and down home charm, I can easily see why this understated film appealed to the crowds that flock to the Texas film fest and why it’s proving to be an appetizing alternative to audiences at the end of their summer blockbuster rope.