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Review: LaBeouf and Gottsagen's strangely ambitious 'Peanut Butter Falcon' has enough heart to work

The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Peanut Butter Falcon Nigel Bluck

A name like The Peanut Butter Falcon might not suggest much in the way of plot, but it certainly gives you a taste of this picture overall: sweet, gooey, and a strange combination. It’s a road movie, a buddy comedy, an indie melodrama, and even a fairytale. And while it might seem like a film of this scale is biting off more than it can chew, The Peanut Butter Falcon, for the most part, has enough heart to make it work.

We’ll come to find that the title refers to the alter ego of buddy No. 1, Zak (Zack Gottsagen). He’s a thirtysomething with Down syndrome who spends the better part of his days watching pro wrestling tapes and trying to escape the old folks home where he’s been more or less abandoned. One night, he actually succeeds, running in his tighty-whities through the North Carolina night. When day breaks, Zak hides out on a boat owned by Tyler (actual cannibal Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman with a major chip on his shoulder.

When two rivals (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) attack Tyler for stealing from their traps, he sets a bunch of their stuff on fire and takes off for Florida—not realizing he has Zak in tow. A hostile intro builds to a bromance after a chance encounter with Zak’s worried caretaker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), and soon this unlikely team becomes closer than Tyler could have imagined.

The Peanut Butter Falcon deals primarily with somber themes: the lasting effects of familial death, the failure to realize potential, the maliciousness of others. Somehow, through the overwhelming sadness, it manages to be one of the year’s most uplifting films. It follows in the tradition of Mark Twain’s epicAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, but The Peanut Butter Falcon feels more like a short story and is at its best when neglecting a grander message. Even if it loses focus on occasion, it delivers the feels when it lets the main characters do the heavy lifting.

Newcomer Gottsagen does a phenomenal job relating the struggles faced by people with Down syndrome, but his levity and clear stick-to-itiveness keep this from being some long-form pity party. Even at his lowest, Zak’s unwillingness to let go of his wrestling dreams despite the odds is nothing if not admirable. Tyler initially serves as a darker counterbalance, but LaBeouf’s infusion of carpe diem attitude and moral ambiguity highlights the complexities of a man searching for light at the end of the tunnel. LaBeouf’s personal life can overshadow his acting ability for some, but The Peanut Butter Falcon is a great reminder of what a talent he’s always been.

Impressive and inspiring, this movie proves you don’t need a huge budget or a sweeping epic narrative to leave a mark. Small, character-driven tales can make just as much of a personal impact. And after a summer of huge Hollywood blockbusters, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a welcome change of pace.

The Peanut Butter Falcon
Directors: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Area theaters, now playing