By Rob Daniel
(4 / 5)
A contender for 2019’s best crowd-pleaser, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a celebration of friendship and adventure. A joyous movie leaving you with an aching face after ninety-minutes of smiling.
Alongside the delight is an admiration for the skill with which writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz (under the banner Lucky Treehouse) put their movie together. A movie that could have been swept under by the currents of patronising good intentions, instead sails from a laugh-out-loud opening to heart-warming close.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, yearns to break free of the retirement home in which he is forced to live. With the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak busts out, his mission to train at the wrestling academy run by his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
He finds a reluctant travelling partner in Tyler, a crab fisherman fleeing rivals Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Alabama rapper Yelawolf) after a fiery altercation. Zak’s compassionate carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is also on their trail, though minus the tyre iron Duncan is keeping for a date with Tyler’s cranium.
Smart writing twinned with Gottsagen and LaBeouf’s onscreen chemistry and fizzing improvised dialogue makes Zak and Tyler’s friendship not just believable but irresistible. Audience friendly obstacles (a run-in with a gun-toting blind preacher, a river-crossing close encounter with a large oncoming vessel) keep the two men dependent on each other while that road movie (or river movie) bond grows.
This is also a text-book example of good onscreen representation. While never denying Zak needs a support network, the film affords him agency of his own and is unafraid of throwing at him danger and ignorance with which to wrestle… sometimes literally.
Gottsagen is excellent here. The part was written specifically for him and he grabs the adventure as tightly as his character does, matching seasoned thesps LaBeouf and Johnson.
Shooting on location in the Georgia swamps and rivers, Nilson and Schwartz build a real world of beauty set against economic hardships to temper some of the story’s big screen idealism. Non-actors, including professional wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley as small-town grapplers, add to the authenticity.
LaBeouf, seen fresh-faced in flashbacks with a cameo’ing Jon Bernthal as his brother, presumably channelled past troubles into his character here. But, again he proves what a charismatic performer he can be and how right it was to shrug off franchise films in favour of more interesting movies.
So too Dakota Johnson, here delivering a performance of warmth, intelligence and passion never permitted her in those Fifty Shades outings.
The uber-cynical may balk at how closely the film sticks to the familiar plot beats (*cough*, contrivances) of the hero’s journey. But, as with all stories, enjoyment all depends on how well it’s told.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is told beautifully.