Fans of adventure tales, buddy flicks and professional wrestling will all find something to love in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
A charming adventure movie that owes a little to Beasts of the Southern Wild and a lot to Huckleberry Finn, The Peanut Butter Falcon largely succeeds because of the chemistry of its two leads, Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf. Beautiful settings in the southern backcountry help as well, as do memorable supporting performances and a plot revolving around the zaniest of “sports,” wrestling (the Becky Lynch kind).
The titular falcon is Zak (Gottsagen), or at least that is who he aspires to be. Zak has Down Syndrome and, due to a lack of care centers catering to his needs, is forced to live in a North Carolina old folks’ home. There he has a happy but unfulfilling life surrounded by feisty seniors and his snappy caretaker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a kindly volunteer. Zak dreams of being a professional wrestler and hopes to train under the legendary Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a backwoods brawler with a renowned training center. When Zak finally escapes, he does so with no supplies and wearing only his tighty whities. As a result, he’s forced to take rather immediate shelter, and does so in a boat belonging to Tyler (LaBeouf), a fisherman and petty criminal who shares Zak’s penchant for brawling, albeit for different reasons. Tyler, still not over his brother (Jon Bernthal)’s death, allows Zak to fill the void, at least momentarily, and decides to help out.
The key to The Peanut Butter Falcon’s success is that it takes its subjects seriously. There are gentle laughs at Zak’s expense, but nothing that attacks his capabilities. Instead, the laughs come as a result of his curiosity, his indefatigable nature and his love of wrestling. And wrestling takes some gentle knocks as well, but co-writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz (in their feature-length narrative debut) are obviously fans, and so the gags come hand-in-hand with reverence. They even include small roles for wrestling legends Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.
The marshy, woodsy and beachy environments of the rural south are also given their fair shake. So often construed as an unmaintained wasteland filled with aggressive rednecks, The Peanut Butter Falcon appreciates the south while also addressing some of the realities that our heroes would face there. It’s a fine line, and Zak and Tyler’s continued success occasionally makes things feel a bit sugarcoated, but it’s also fulfilling and relatively realistic given the nature of the film.
LaBeouf hasn’t been this charismatic in years, and he finally seems like the kind of complex leading man that his youthful roles hinted towards. Johnson continues to wring an abundance of textures and hues out of underwritten supporting roles, and it would great to see her get more chances to run the show like she did in last year’s underrated Suspiria remake. The exceptional supporting cast includes memorable turns by Church, Bruce Dern and John Hawkes. But the real star here is Gottsagen, who carries the film with a performance that celebrates his differences rather than inviting sympathy. The playfulness of his performance is deepened by the quality of searching; Zak is simply looking for his place in the world.
The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t pack in a ton of surprises in terms of plot, but it makes up for that by doing everything it sets out to with confidence, quality and compassion. It is a film that is not afraid to linger on happiness, too, which is rare in these cynical times. Fans of adventure tales, buddy flicks and professional wrestling will all find something to love in The Peanut Butter Falcon.