The Peanut Butter Falcon is a comedy drama from writer / director team Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. It’s a small, unassuming movie with a dynamite cast that’s intent on making you feel good.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome, living in a North Carolina care facility that primarily looks after the elderly. His friend and carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), labels him a flight risk after his repeated attempts to escape. Sure enough, with the help of his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes and hits the road, determined to fulfil his ambition and travel to a wrestling school to meet his idol, regional pro wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church).
With Eleanor in pursuit, Zak’s path soon meets Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), a troubled man who is also being pursued, by volatile local fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes). Zak and Tyler bond quickly and begrudgingly go on the lam together.
Running at a tight 97 minutes, The Peanut Butter Falcon is ostensibly a road movie, albeit one that takes place almost everywhere but an actual road. Zak and Tyler traverse paddocks and fields and beaches and, eventually, the sea on their quest to find The Salt Water Redneck. It’s a film about friendship and, as one character puts it, “the family you choose”. On paper there might not be anything we’ve not seen before, but it’s hard to knock a film that wears its heart on its sleeve so openly.
The plot itself is very simple because The Peanut Butter Falcon wants us to examine the journey, not the destination. So the key to everything is in the sincerity of the performances and characters. They are real and complex and human.
The relationship trio at the heart of The Peanut Butter Falcon is why the movie succeeds. The building of a surrogate brotherhood between Zak and Tyler, with Eleanor’s caring influence, drives everything. Zack Gottsagen is excellent in a role that was written specifically for him by Nilson and Schwartz. It isn’t made clear why Zak doesn’t have a family to supervise him. At once stage he refers to them having left him, but it is not clear if he means this literally or in the sense that they have died. But Gottsagen never lets it get mawkish, putting forth a sense of adventure that’s highly infectious and influences everyone.
Meanwhile, Shia LeBeouf is in career-best form as Tyler, kind hearted but not beyond moments of poor judgement. He’s superficially fleeing from angry fishermen, but the real thing he’s running from is much more internal. Dakota Johnson is also excellent as Eleanor, the pragmatist to Tyler’s fantasy-life enabler. But although there is disagreement between them over what is best for Zak, there is never any malice; each respects that the other has his best interests at heart.
Even the smaller parts are filled with actors of high quality, from the legendary Bruce Dern to Jon Bernthal’s cameo. John Hawkes may be sketching yet another menacing hard man, as he did in Winter’s Bone and Too Old To Die Young, but for a man of smaller stature he continues to prove his ability to exude the threat of violence with a terrifying intensity. Wrestling fans will also appreciate the appearances from real pro wrestlers Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts and Mick Foley.
There are a couple of minor downsides that don’t spoil the film in any way, but do prevent it from scoring full marks. Starting with the fact the dialogue can be hard to understand. It seems every character decides to mumble their way through the script at one point or another, leading to confusion in a couple of scenes. The ending also feels too abrupt, and we are left hanging in regard to fairly important plot detail.
But in the grander scheme, these things matter very little. The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those movies that is almost impossible to dislike. And why would you? Trying to find fault in a story like this feels misguided at best and mean spirited at worst, because ultimately The Peanut Butter Falcon is a charming, funny adventure that just wants to lift your spirits.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ opens in Australian cinemas on January 30.