There is a great moment in “The Peanut Butter Falcon” that sums up how and why the movie works.
Zak, a young man with Down syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen, who also has Down syndrome), is stuck in a nursing home, an inappropriate place for someone his age. (Sadly, that sort of placement by the state happens all the time.)
He decides to run away to attend a school for potential professional wrestlers run by the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a local-talent wrestler whom Zak adores.
Along the way, Zak meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, rocking a serious Southern accent), a down-on-his-luck fisherman who has made some misguided life choices and is on the lam. They’re wandering around the North Carolina coast, both in a little over their respective heads. When they encounter each other, eye-to-eye honesty commences.
“I want you to know about me,” Zak says. “I am a Down syndrome person.”
“I don’t really give a (expletive). Do you got supplies on you? That’s what we need,” Tyler says.
No condescension. No pity. Just two dudes trying to figure out what’s next. And also maybe what to eat that night.
Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote “The Peanut Butter Falcon” with Gottsagen in mind after working with him at a summer camp. They put the script together, focused on Gottsagen’s strengths and lined up a some genuinely big names to flesh out the cast. Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, a woman who works at the nursing home and who is looking for Zak. Bruce Dern has a small role as Zak’s roommate. The almighty John Hawkes pops in as a rival fisherman who has as legitimate beef with Tyler.
The name “Mark Twain” has been thrown around a bit regarding “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” and the film isn’t shy about the comparison — the author’s name comes up. There’s a raft and everything. And there are definitely characteristics of a fable or fairy tale in this film.
But there’s also a bracing emotional realism here. Both Zak and Tyler are men whom fate has screwed over. Zak doesn’t have any family left, and neither does Tyler. The latter’s life went south after his brother died, while the former’s existence is life-wastingly dull. Eleanor just wants what is best for Zak, but she is not wild about Zak’s situation either.
It would be a shame if this film was celebrated more for how and why it was made (indeed excellent) than for the film itself. It is a small, lovely work with excellent, all-in performances from Gottsagen and especially LaBeouf, who is becoming a more interesting and nuanced actor as he gets older. One can actually see him having a career not unlike Hawkes’ — thoughtful character performances that always add a richness to whatever material is on hand.
And nothing is more refreshing than seeing an actor like Gottsagen appearing as just another person trying to get by using what he has to work with.
Which is to say: normal.
What “The Peanut Butter Falcon” • Three stars out of four • Run time 1:33 • Rating PG-13 • Content Some violence and language