The “hero’s journey” can take many different forms. From the imaginative and large-scale Star Wars franchise to the literature-based Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, film chronicles the stories of all different types of heroes who embark on a quest to achieve a certain goal. Rarely does one come around that has as much heart as The Peanut Butter Falcon: a unique, feel-good story with meaning and production value. Viewers are introduced to Zack (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down’s Syndrome who is forced to reside in an assisted living facility for elderly patients. He clearly does not belong there and from the very first scene he makes it clear that he wants to escape. However, since he has no family or friends to flee to, when he finally frees himself he pursues his dream of becoming a wrestler. Along the way he meets a shunned working man named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), and they help each other out while one of the facility’s caregivers (Dakota Johnson) searches for Zack.
This film contains one of the most accurate depictions of people with disabilities in memory, and that is due to the lead actor actually living with it himself. It is about time that films cast people with disabilities in lead roles to reflect the true nature of the character, and The Peanut Butter Falcon shows the rest of Hollywood that not only can it be done, but it can also be accomplished with expertise and mastery. Gottsagen is a delight through every frame while also being the heart and soul of the film. His performance compliments those around him while also standing on its own as a strong lead presence.
However, the performance that seriously snuck up on me was LaBeouf as the outlaw with a complicated past. It’s been a good while since the time Shia LaBeouf was all the rage in Hollywood, and here he shows not only why he gained popularity in the first place but that he has a bigger range than initially thought. His character starts off as a lonely outcast, which is visible in his mannerisms and facial expressions with very few lines being delivered. As the film goes on and as his character begins to find purpose, LaBeouf moves with more enthusiasm and vigor, which makes his story arc the most powerful in the movie.
While Zack is the main protagonist, Tyler carries the most emotional weight and truly exemplifies the message of this movie. All of the “good guy” characters in this film, big or small, start off the film with little purpose and are looking for something to grasp onto. But sometimes the driving force of meaning comes at a place which is least expected, especially in Tyler’s case. He is at rock bottom before he meets Zack, but after Tyler finds him sleeping in a boat in his underwear, he slowly starts to feel worth it again. The brother-like figure that Zack provides makes him pull himself out of the muck and keep going, despite his past wrong-doings and traumas.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is also gorgeously written/directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz. This appears to be their first major feature film, but the effortlessness of the shot placements make them feel like seasoned veterans of the craft. The events take place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the directors immerse the audience in the wet and marshy atmosphere with long wide shots and beautiful locations. A scene where LaBeouf and Gottsagen are walking alongside a tall grassy field, for example, is shot from a distance with their figures very small in the bottom of the screen. This convinces viewers that the characters are walking across real terrain, and never once does it feel like a set of a Hollywood movie in that respect.
Many plot devices that could seem cliché in concept are executed in such a way that it feels fresh and unique to this film. A montage sequence that could have fallen flat in any other movie works here because the chemistry of the actors and the authenticity of the intent shines. Some flashback sequences do feel a bit forced, and while they were essential in expressing the backstory of certain characters, it still feels as if they were written into the script as an afterthought. With that being said, Nilson and Schwartz elevate the material beyond simplicity and the mundane with the clear amount of passion they injected into this project.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a great movie because it has a sense of powerful optimism that is rare in modern film. The director/writers clearly know their literature as they take great care to bring the atmosphere of stories like Tom Sawyer into modern day. Mark Twain is even briefly mentioned in the dialogue with a sense of irony. Finding reason and meaning in life can be difficult, but as Tyler and Zack show, blessings will arrive when they are least expected no matter the type of person.
I give The Peanut Butter Falcon an A.