I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Peanut Butter Falcon. It stars Shia Labeouf and a young man with Down’s Syndrome traveling the road together. I tried not to go in with preconceptions and was glad I didn’t because the film was far more than anticipated and delightful in its execution. The characters are engaging, inviting, and the buddy moments between Shia and Zack were charming. The character of Zack is treated as a person first and it was lovely to see a differently-abled person as the main character.
Peanut Butter Falcon is the story of a young man, Zack, who has Down’s Syndrome. Zack is living in a retirement home because his family abandoned him and the state had no other place for him. Zack is obsessed with wrestling, in particular, the character of ?? who runs a wrestling school. With the help of his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), Zack escapes the home to find his wrestling hero. He stops to rest in a boat and gets involved with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) who is in trouble of his own. Tyler is grieving his dead brother and on the run from the man who took over his family business, Duncan. Zack is being pursued also by Eleanore who cared for him in the home and wants to keep him safe. But Zack doesn’t want safety. Zack and Tyler join forces and take off on the road, Tyler promising to help Zack meet his hero. But will the pair manage to make it with their pursuers chasing them to North Carolina?
Part of what makes this film compelling right from the start is the dynamic between Shia Lebeouf and Zack Gottsagen. The pair have a genuine connection that shines in every scene that they’re in and it makes it feel less like a buddy movie and more like a pair of brothers helping one another along the way. The movie is very much about the relationship between Zack and Tyler, how the two of them relate and get along. Tyler doesn’t care that Zack has Down’s, all he cares about is that Zack can keep up and shoulder his part of the burden along the waterways of Georgia as the pair make their way to Saltwater Redneck. Tyler so believes in Zack that he scolds Eleanore for treating Zack as though he can’t live his own life. As he puts it, Zack has a big heart, he’s a hero. Some things you can do and some things you can’t and that’s okay.” Having a lead actor with Down’s is unique but I felt that it was really that the actor, Zack Gottsagen, is charismatic and funny in the role. He is treated as a person first, differently-abled second and that truly is captured in this movie.
Another element that makes this film so entertaining is the cast of memorable and unique characters, from Bruce Dern playing Zack’s roommate who helps him in escaping to the blind God-fearing and gun-toting man who provides them with supplies to Saltwater Redneck himself, Zack and Tyler meet a variety of people who help them accomplish their goals. One of the best performances is Dakota Johnson as Eleanor. When we meet her, she seems like a well-meaning caregiver but by the end of the film, you see her as three dimensional and with her own goals and own reasons for helping Zack and Tyler.
The cinematography is gorgeous, filmed on location in Georgia and having it shot on location adds to the reality of the story, adds to the layers between the characters and creates some of the more interesting interactions in the film.
The story moves slowly, meandering like the river or a long road, rather like a Mark Twain story brought to life in the modern age. The story is full of moments between Tyler and Zack as they travel and learn from each other. Some are funny, like making watermelon hats or serious when Tyler convinces Zak he has more heart than he knows and is a hero, not a villain. All of the moments build a compelling film, dynamic and charming.
That slowness might be a detractor for some people, and while the characters are genuine and real, the story is on the simple side. I personally don’t find that an issue. It’s what makes it feel like a Twain story. But if you are looking for surprises, it doesn’t have many except for the ending.
What it is, is a sweet story about the journey to friendship and acceptance with a unique differently-abled protagonist and a cast of unusual and amazing characters. It is charming, soulful, and heartwarming. Anyone who enjoys stories like this should check this out. Zack is beautiful and this is Shia LaBeouf’s best performance.
Rating: 4.5 rafts out of 5