The Peanut Butter Falcon really is this year’s “Little Film That Could”. The movie exploded out of SXSW with a small cast, first time directors and intimate shooting. From the opening frames, it is clear this picture is a labor of love from all sides. Is the inspirational film all hype? Or is it worth checking out as it nears wide release? Here’s what you need to know.
The Peanut Butter Falcon follows Zak ( Zack Gottsagen) a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from his home in a retirement community. He yearns for family, better than he has, and ultimately to learn wrestling from the “Saltwater Redneck” (Thomas Hayden Church). On the road, he teams up with struggling sailor Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and eventually social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) on a journey where they not only better themselves, but each other. Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz direct from their own script.
The joy in the casting leaps off the screen, finding solid balance in the sensitive story. Gottsagen is the face of the film, crafting a heartfelt and relatable character in Zak. The connection between the filmmakers and actor is real as they bring this young man to the screen. They quickly make clear that Zak isn’t defined by his Down syndrome. He doesn’t like where he’s living, his ultimate goal is to become a wrestler and he struggles with the same feelings of abandonment that most have felt at one time or another. The performance is layered and immediately stands out in its differences from other films in the “inspirational” genre. The focus of the narrative isn’t about overcoming or rising above his condition. Rather, Zak is not only living with it, but supporting others in the process.
Meanwhile, Johnson and LaBeouf absolutely shine in their respective roles. LaBeouf in particular steps beyond some of his past struggles to really meld into his part. As Tyler’s relationship with Zak develops, his fragility and real depth emerges at the same time. It becomes clear that while Zak does need him, Tyler needs him just as much.
Nilson and Schwartz demonstrate tremendous skill in their feature length, narrative debut. Both arrive on the scene with varied and unique experiences; however, in their handling of the low key, but emotional story feel completely at home in not only their narrative crafting, but the film’s carefully crafted visuals.
They meld well with Nigel Bluck in capturing their southern locations with an almost hazy beauty. The depiction of the environment is often idyllic, making it clear to audiences why our characters are doing what they are doing. At its roots, this is a road movie and everyone yearns to escape from something, whether it is a flat existence in a retirement home, or even shady business dealings. As the film plays out, Nilson and Schwartz’s lens is sensitive and idyllic. There’s a sense that while this might not last for any of our characters, at least they have this experience.
Finally, as the action plays out on screen a powerful theme quickly takes root within the script’s pages. In a world which seems entirely dominated by political and social division, family is what you make it. Some of us aren’t related to our family. Tyler, Eleanor and Zak demonstrate that family is about love and acceptance, not blood.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a little movie which is showing some real legs. A small labor of love, the film steps out from behind the often formulaic tropes of its genre to make a powerful statement about not only character, but family. As this feature expands, make sure to check this one out if it’s playing near you.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is in select theaters now. Check it out around the country beginning August 23rd.