The Peanut Butter Falcon
Updated: Feb 9
Some premises sound problematic on the surface. They seem almost guaranteed to include elements that are exploitative, manipulative or obnoxiously clichéd. Usually, the resulting product lives down to those expectations. Every once in a while, something surprising comes along. Thankfully for those of us lucky enough to see it, The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of the few that steps carefully to avoid all of its potential issues. The story of a young man with Down syndrome who runs away to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler, it could have been overly quirky, condescending and annoyingly melodramatic. It is none of those things. It is about the individual emotional journeys its characters make in a way that is touching. I came in a little wary and came out wanting to tell people they should see it.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (91 minutes without the end credits) is about Zak, a 22 year-old with Down syndrome. He was abandoned by his family and made a ward of the state, who has forced him to live in a retirement home. He is obsessed with a wrestler named The Salt Water Redneck, whose tapes he has watched repeatedly. Eventually, he escapes his restrictive home and finds himself in a boat belonging to Tyler, a fisherman on the run. It then turns into a road trip drama as they travel the backroads while staying ahead of Tyler’s enemies and Eleanor, Zak’s friend who works at the retirement home.
A quirky drama with moments of humor could be a dangerous place for a story about someone with Down syndrome. However, there are no jokes about it and the screenplay never pities him or uses it for additional drama. It is part of who he is, but he will not allow it to define him. Tyler just sees this kid who needs help and is not going to make it without him. The only character focused on his disorder is Eleanor and the movie makes that a piece of her arc instead of part of the plot. It is handled so deftly and is never once abused. The Peanut Butter Falcon is so successful because it treats him like a person rather than an idea.
The lead performances add to the sweet tone. Shia LaBeouf, who became a bit of a punchline after a hot start to his career with the Transformers franchise, is Tyler. He is haunted by his past. LaBeouf is very engaging, balancing his guilt with a fascination for his newfound friend. He does not play it as the “jerk with a heart of gold.” He is a good person who lacks the energy to be good. It is a nicely nuanced performance that should remind viewers he is quite a talented actor.
Likewise, Dakota Johnson takes the “overprotective friend” role, which could have been a plot device, and makes it sympathetic. She clearly has a life aside from Zak, yet he means more to her than just someone she spends time with at work. Her worry for him comes off as honest and heartfelt. This character could have been somewhat irrelevant to the overall narrative. Johnson gives it a life that enhances the story.
Zak, the most important character, is played by Zack Gottsagen. Gottsagen really does have Down syndrome and refused to allow that to stop him from becoming an actor. That is an inspiring story. The fact he is legitimately good here is even more powerful. Nobody could have understood what Zak is going through more than someone who succeeded on a similar quest. It is not a gimmick. It is a real performance with depth, subtlety and a sense of humor. Gottsagen, as well as the respectful approach to his character, are the main reasons this ended up being such a great experience.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a feel-good crowd-pleaser. Those are two terms that tend to make me roll my eyes, but it did make me feel good. It is smart, entertaining, funny and heartwarming. This is the type of small release that finds its audience through word of mouth. So now I will contribute to that: go see it! It is really good.
4¼ out of 5
Zack Gottsagen as Zak
Shia LaBeouf as Tyler
Dakota Johnson as Eleanor
Thomas Haden Church as Salt Water Redneck
John Hawkes as Duncan
Written and Directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz