Borrowing the off-the-grid Southern landscapes of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and adding the energetic, spirited Zack Gottsagen — supported by a very engaging Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson — “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is charming, enveloping, and an absolute joy.
Zak (first-timer Gottsagen) is a 22-year-old with Down syndrome; after being abandoned by his relatives, he lives in a nursing home because the state has no other facilities that would supply the care he needs. Looked after by administrator Eleanor (Johnson) and several of the other residents, Zak watches old wrestling videos of his idol, “The Saltwater Redneck” (Thomas Haden Church), and dreams of escaping the home to attend the Redneck’s wrestling school.
One night, with the help of his roommate (Bruce Dern in a brief, delightful appearance), who believes Zak should be out experiencing life, Zak escapes wearing only his tighty-whities. Determined, he runs through most of the night, finally finding a moment to rest on a small boat, where he hides under a tarp.
That boat is owned by Tyler (LaBeouf), who’s on the run from the law (some of his illegal dealings have gotten him fired) and some vengeance-seeking crab trappers (hunting him down for setting fire to their equipment). While Tyler eludes the trappers, he discovers Zak, puking from motion sickness under the tarp. Though he initially dismisses him, he just as quickly changes his mind and helps Zak on his journey.
So yes, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a mismatched-buddy comedy, but the two bring an honest rawness to the lives and dreams of the characters. Many have written off LaBeouf after many scandals, but here he carries his baggage and infuses it into Tyler’s pain, giving a vulnerable and open performance that is both silent and blunt. Newcomer Gottsagen, with only the documentary “Becoming Bulletproof” as a prior credit, fills the screen with a rush of determination and optimism. Each moment of new discovery brings new layers to each, with Tyler stepping into a big-brother role as Zak hangs on his every word, but never so much that he loses sight of his goal.
First-time feature writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz fully realize Gottsagen not as a disabled actor, but as an actor who happens to have a disability. Their shift in perspective gives life to a story about misfits and outcasts that relies not on tragedy but rather determined jubilation. The disability community is often ignored in industry conversations about inclusion, and when such characters are included, the roles go to able-bodied actors who win awards for being “inspiring.” A disability — like ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — shouldn’t be treated as the only part of the story to tell, and Nilson and Schwartz clearly recognize that.
Director of Photography Nigel Bluck (“True Detective”) chooses simple, wide shots across areas deserted beaches and murky off-the-grid backwoods roads, and paired them with the simple-but-naturalist sets by production designer Gabrael Wilson, adding a layer of grit that speaks both to the characters and the journey they face.
Unlike countless films where a character is reduced to his disability, the beauty of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is that it isn’t a story about overcoming obstacles. Instead, it’s a beautiful story about human connection, heroes and finding the joy of simply living your truth.