Directed by: Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz
Premise: A twenty year old man with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) escapes from institutionalization to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. He pairs with a drifter (Shia LaBeouf) while a social worker (Dakota Johnson) attempts to track him down.
What Works: The Peanut Butter Falcon is primarily a road trip movie. State services have assigned Zak, a young man with Down syndrome, to live in a retirement home. Zak absconds from the home and crosses paths with Tyler, a drifter on the run from some bad people. The two of them pair up and begin a journey along the Atlantic coast en route to the camp run by Zak’s favorite wrestler (Thomas Haden Church). Road trip movies like Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Dumb & Dumber often hinge upon the travelers and The Peanut Butter Falcon succeeds in large part because of the pairing of Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf. The two of them have an authentic brotherly rapport; initially it doesn’t seem credible that the two men would pair up but the story smooths this out with flashbacks to Tyler’s backstory and the genuine impression of good-heartedness of LaBeouf’s part. That’s one of the most appealing qualities of The Peanut Butter Falcon. The movie is nice without getting unnecessarily sentimental and it’s about characters doing good despite their flaws. The Peanut Butter Falcon is also notable for its depiction of Down syndrome. Actor Zack Gottsagen actually has the condition and this film is about how we treat people with disabilities. This movie has the expected scenes of ignorant characters ridiculing Zak for his condition but The Peanut Butter Falcon gets beyond the obvious and dramatizes the way otherwise well intentioned people rob the disabled of autonomy. Zak’s journey isn’t just about fandom; he’s trying to realize a dream of strength and independence that everyone seems determined to take from him.
What Doesn’t: The heart of The Peanut Butter Falcon
is the relationship between Zak and Tyler. These strangers are flung
together by circumstance but their friendship is sweet and mostly
credible. Eleanor, the social worker played by Dakota Johnson, is a
third wheel. She searches for Zak but doesn’t have any leads and then
halfway through the picture Eleanor catches up with Zak and Tyler by
chance. That ought to be the end of the story but—in a logically
torturous twist—Eleanor decides to tag along on their adventure instead
of returning Zak to state custody. This is not credible and from then
on Eleanor’s character serves no narrative purpose nor does she have
anything meaningful to do. This isn’t the fault of Dakota Johnson, who
does what she can with the limited material, but if the character had
been cut from the movie it might actually have improved the plotting.
Bottom Line: The Peanut Butter Falcon is a likable movie with a pair of terrific performances by Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf. The plotting is a little wobbly but the movie’s faults are more than made up for by its affability.
Episode: #764 (September 1, 2019)