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The Peanut Butter Falcon Churns with Purifying Freedom

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LeBeouf make for an indelible pair of rousing bandits

Image courtesy of The Washington Post
The vintage-style official poster for "The Peanut Butter Falcon"
Shia LeBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, and Dakota Johnson star in the charming indie “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

In helping a fellow man on the lam, Shia LeBeouf’s criminal character Tyler preaches to his runaway tag-along Zak, played by newcomer Zack Gottsagen, that everyone should “have a good story to tell when you die.” There is an empowering “why wait” urgency in Tyler’s plea and credo to live life to the fullest and chase dreams. And, boy, he ain’t lying because the first-time feature filmmakers of The Peanut Butter Falcon, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, and the kindly Gottsagen, have gone ahead and done it right now. They have made that kind of story on the first try.

Let that credo be said again. The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t just tell a good story. It tells a great one worthy of attention, praise, and undying appreciation. The purifying freedom that churns throughout this movie could cultivate even the most barren heart. This lovable little film, winner of the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award from the SXSW Film Festival, is the kind of experience that makes one rethink how their own story is going. That is a mighty, motivating accomplishment for something that couldn’t stand out more from the usual summer blockbuster fare.

Zak is a portly young man in his early thirties confined to a North Carolina assisted living home because his immediate family doesn’t have the means or the bother to handle his Down syndrome. He’s embraced in this restrictive environment by cheeky senior citizens and his dedicated counselor and caseworker Eleanor, played by a game and tame Dakota Johnson. With limited exposure to the social graces of the outside world, Zak’s grand aspirations come from old VHS wrestling tapes he repeatedly consumes with his old fogie roomie Carl (the magnanimous Bruce Dern). He dreams of someday meeting his hero, “The Salt Water Redneck” (Thomas Haden Church), and attending his professional wrestling school to become a beefy new star of the squared circle.

With Carl’s kindred spirit help, Zak makes a midnight escape from the facility and, by the next morning, hides on a small fishing boat near the coastal marshes of the Outer Banks. The person dashing in to take the helm of that boat is Tyler. He is a hard-luck thief running away from the rural retribution coming to him for stealing and destroying the crab pots of John Hawkes’ local heavy Duncan. Tyler’s poor choices are a result of a self-induced downward spiral fueled by the reeling loss of his big brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, seen in flashback).

Pitying the sorry stowaway clad in nothing but his skivvies, Tyler sees the shared circumstances of escape and loneliness and takes Zak under his wing of guidance. As “two bandits on the run” scrounging for supplies and hammering together a makeshift raft, Tyler promises to get Zak to the downstate wrestling school to meet his hero on his way to his own exodus to Florida. From there, their shared quality time and humorous kinship create the rooting wonders to behold in The Peanut Butter Falcon.

Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson and Shia LaBeouf star in Peanut Butter Falcon

First things first, Zak (and Zack Gottsagen) is not retarded.  Excise that term. The people that care to understand him and his differences push back against those who mislabel him. The Peanut Butter Falcon grants viewers a character with Down Syndrome whose wants and needs are no different or less than many of our own, and that is realistic and beautiful and to see.

Film role opportunities and casting representation for actors with disabilities might just be harder than any of the other hashtagged or flag-waving demographics out there. The list of active actors with Down syndrome is awfully short. This a rare and rich leading role and Zack Gottsagen does not wither under this level of spotlight and commitment. His character may be getting his hand held throughout the world, but Gottsagen takes his own confident steps to assert his talent. No impediments can hide his endearing charm, comic timing, and screen presence. For that and not any label, Zack Gottsagen deserves supporting actor awards consideration at the end of the year for embodying one of the most memorable movie characters in recent memory.

Tyler watches over Zak like a treasure, a protective benefit of friendship. Bound by a secret handshake, he teaches the newbie how to swim, drink moonshine, and shoot a shotgun. On the rhapsodic side, Tyler challenges Zak’s heart and shows him how to make rules and know the difference between good guys and bad guys. In doing so, he’s training his impressionable companion how to be a hero (adopting the title moniker), which sculpts character without fancy tools better than Bob Villa builds houses.

The resurrected Shia LeBeouf radiates in this role. Here now, at 33 years old, the actor’s frenetic nature is harnessed perfectly as a hair-trigger for caring and defense as Tyler. His dedication in this movie fleshes out the best and most natural LeBeouf has been in years, maybe ever. Like Jake Gyllenhaal a few years ahead of him, Shia LeBeouf has always given his all even in shitty movies, but, if he keeps this up (and the upcoming autobiographical Honey Boy, written by his own hand, looks to do just that), he’s going to emerge as something special. If the likes of Clooney and McConaughey can wash off the stinker periods on their resumes, so can Shia LeBeouf.

The surprising and lasting resonance of The Peanut Butter Falcon is watching Tyler and Zak merge their goals together. What began as happenstance evolves to feel like destiny with the line “friends are the family you choose.” They chose each other after the rest of the people around them in life, including true family, have left or discarded them. Both have gained an unlikely best friend in each other and the healing support that comes from that kind of union.

Simply put, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a collection of fantastic creative choices. TV cinematographer Nigel Bluck broadens his lens to include the pleasant sun-lit surroundings of the Georgia shooting locations from high and low with excellent framing variety. The bluegrass musical palette composed by Jonathan Sadoff (Ingrid Goes West), supervisor Zachary Dawes (True Detective), and two members of the Grammy-award winning folk act Punch Brothers, fiddler Gabe Witcher and banjo player Noam Pikelny, settles into its setting and couldn’t be more fitting. Beyond the technical marks, the story again wins.

Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have made an exceptional adventure that emphasizes people over spectacle. The tonal details in every narrative corner are positively winsome and carry their own uniqueness. What stands on one side as a hard journey of loss and those connected emotions gets distilled into a sweet odyssey of positive and lifting resilience. To close with one more pep talk exemplar, Shia’s Tyler asks Zak which kind of heart does he have, a Down’s one or a real one. The actions that unfold for the characters earn the latter. This movie and the disarming force of its substance does the very same.

 


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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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