THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz

Stars: Shia LeBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church.

Dakota Johnson, Shia LaBeouf, and Zack Gottsagen in The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

A charming offbeat feelgood film about an unlikely couple of misfits who embark on a life changing journey and the strong bonds that develop between them. It is a bit like a modern variation on Mark Twain’s adventure stories. The film deals with themes of friendship, redemption, human connection, facing obstacles, and living life. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the debut feature film from Tyler Nilson (a former actor) and Michael Schwartz (who has a handful of short films to his credit).

The film centres around Zac (played by newcomer Zack Gottsagen) a young man who suffers from Down Syndrome and who lives in a residential nursing home for old folk. The foster system which is supposed to look after him has found it hard to find somewhere more suitable to place him. Zac spends most of his time watching old wrestling videos on an old tv set. He dreams of becoming a wrestler.

With the help of Carl, his sympathetic roommate who believes that the young man should be out experiencing life, Zac sneaks out of the nursing home one night, clad only in his Y-fronts, and tries to make his way to Florida and the wrestling school run by his hero the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  He stows away on the fishing boat operated by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, replacing Ben Foster, who had to drop out of the project), a troubled fisherman who has been stealing crayfish from the traps set by other fishermen. Meanwhile Tyler is being chased by Duncan, an irate local fisherman (John Hawkes) whose equipment he set fire to.

The two misfits hit the road together, and also travel down the waterways of North Carolina on a raft (hence the Mark Twain allusions). Zac is being pursued by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, from Fifty Shades Of Grey, etc), his kind-hearted and compassionate carer who fully intends to bring him back. But when she sees how much Zac is enjoying his freedom and the positive effect that Tyler has had, a friendship develops between the three and they set off to help Zac achieve his ambition.

The film was written specifically for Gottsagen, who suffers from Down Syndrome, and whom the directors met at an LA acting workshop for actors with disabilities. It’s interesting to see such a positive treatment of a person who suffers from a disability as they tend to be marginalised or even invisible in the Hollywood studio system. In fact, Gottsagen is a revelation as he brings an honesty and warmth to his performance, and he demonstrates a range of emotion. He also has great comic timing and apparently improvised many of his own lines on set. 

The chemistry that develops Gottsagen, LaBeouf and Johnson is palpable and gives the drama much of its warmth and heart. LaBeouf delivers a wonderful performance here that captures Tyler’s pain, and he obviously brings some of his own personal baggage to the role. In a small role Bruce Dern brings a mischievous quality to his performance as Carl.

The film has been shot on location in the savannahs and deltas of Georgia by cinematographer Nigel Bluck (The Home Song Stories, etc), whose widescreen lensing captures the picturesque beauty of the setting and gives us a strong sense of place. The gorgeous visuals are accompanied by an evocative and atmospheric score from the quartet of Zachary Dawes, Noam Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, and Gabe Witcher.

The story might be sentimental in nature and a bit familiar and predictable at times, but this sweet and endearing film is suffused with a genuine warmth, optimism and heart that will win over even the more cynical in the audience.

★★★☆

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