The Peanut Butter Falcon was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, and stars acting newcomer Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a young man with down syndrome living in a senior retirement home he’s been put in by the state due to not having any family left to take care of him. Zak wants to becomes a wrestler, a sport he’s picked up an affinity for after many viewings of his nearly worn out videotape depicting an invitation and guide to The Salt-Water Redneck Wrestling School, which is headed up by a wrestler of that name. One night, after growing frustrated with his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) for continuing to keep him in isolation from the outside world and not allowing him to get involved in anything that could be considered dangerous, Zak escapes the retirement home, and embarks on an adventure to find “The Salt-Water Redneck,” attend the wrestling school, and with the help of his soon newly-discovered road pal Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), finally become a professional wrestler, donning his alter-ego wrestling title of “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first saw the trailer for this movie, but I was very intrigued by the prospect of a studio actually giving the role of a character with down syndrome to a down syndrome actor considering how, unfortunately, that’s almost never the case; in fact more than a few actors have won Oscars for portraying mentally (and/or physically) challenged people. We won’t get into the debate here about actors portraying characters vs the responsibility of actors and/or studios to fight for greater representation within those characters’ circles, but what I will say is that casting Gottsagen might have been the best choice the makers of this movie could have made in any given circumstance, because the first and most apparent thing one notices about this movie is that Gottsagen is its beating heart and soul, and the movie knows it.
Let’s get the performances out of the way first this time, because I have a lot to say about all of them, and it will not be a short-winded read. Gottsagen isn’t just an actor with down syndrome playing a down syndrome part; he’s a genuinely good actor, who captures all the nuance and facets of his character the way many professional actors with much longer careers try and fail to do, and somehow, he makes it look easy. Each time we’re meant to laugh, we do. Each time we’re meant to be inspired, we are. His comic timing and dramatic chops at a perfect fever-pitch of precision, on full display, and if this movie had come out any later, I would say we could be looking at major awards contention. It really is that compelling of a performance from Gottsagen, and I’m no less than 100% sure he’ll be popping up in any number of other projects very soon (not to mention the number of indie awards ceremonies he’ll be attending).
Even beyond our lead character, though, this movie yields performances from Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson that remind the audience more than ever why they became big deals in the first place. So much of their careers are tied to the Fifty Shades and Transformers film series that occasionally, it can be hard to remember just how damn good they are when they’re really allowed to dive into a character and just live as part of a script, and their pairing here is a great showcase for both their natural talents, particularly where LaBeouf is concerned. Johnson does everything the script has for her with her role, and pulls it off admirably, but LaBeouf is the real standout between the two (I mean, obviously, being given more screen time), and his deep south affect imbued into his character only adds to his charm. His friendship with Zak and his care for him is palpable across every minute they’re on screen together, and I could have just sat and watched them interact for another hour if the movie asked me to.
What’s so striking about The Peanut Butter Falcon is how decidedly un-striking it is, and it chooses this path very deliberately. The filmmakers easily could have tried to simply make this a tear-jerker about how people with down syndrome are treated by the worst kind of people, but instead the film decides to take the character of Zak and let him be his own person, his own character, and although he doesn’t necessarily have a definitive arc, the way the script gives him the Captain America treatment (i.e. this is a movie about how people around him change as a result of interacting with him, rather than about how he changes) really works for what this movie is trying to do, except in this film’s terms, Zak is no Captain America – he’s just a regular guy who wants to fulfill his lifelong dreams, and the movie puts it very plain on its face. The simplicity of the narrative actually is the point this time around. It’s not saying anything grand or world-redefining by making itself simple and charming; it just is simple and charming, and that sort of small-scale thematic weight is sorely missing from a lot of summer cinema today. The cinematography is also quite gorgeous much of the time, with DP Nigel Bluck somehow managing to paint a sympathetic portrait of the deep American south not seen on this level since at least Mud (another indie from 2012 you should definitely check out).
While I wouldn’t necessarily count them as “wrong,” though, there are a few things The Peanut Butter Falcon manages to miss, one of those being the exploration of the backstory between Shia LaBeouf’s character and his brother. There are a few small flashbacks to it that are genuinely effective as they move along, but there doesn’t seem to be an ultimate thematic resolution of that thread for LaBeouf’s character; instead, that resolution is left with Zak and Zak alone, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I would have liked to have explored how this formation of a new family informed other characters in addition to the main protagonist. There’s also a subplot about Shia LaBeouf’s character running from the law that gets introduced early on, but it never actually manifests into anything, so the introduction of the subplot feels a little bit pointless by the film’s end.
A final point (although a much smaller one) is that the movie just kind of…ends. Sure, the story’s pretty much all wrapped up in terms of the main plot, but it still feels kind of abrupt in execution, and a few of the side plots that were happening just kind of get dropped and don’t ultimately end up mattering very much. Still, other than that, there’s not much wrong with this movie, and even those “flaws” don’t hurt it enough to bring it down much further in terms of scoring than it otherwise would have been.
In the end, The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those noticeably independent movies that I’m almost certain is going to get unfairly passed up and forgotten in the wake of Oscar season fast approaching, but if you get even a small chance at seeing it, you should take it. The performances are great, the story is wonderful and charming, the cinematography and comic notes are near perfectly-executed, and it’s by far one of the best indies of 2019. I promise you, it’s worth your time.
I’m giving “The Peanut Butter Falcon” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.