Review: “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

4 out of 5 stars.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that is so delightful and uplifting that you can’t help but forgive it its flaws.  Such is the case with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a moving and funny story about two very different men on the run that pulls you in with its wonderful characters and adventurous story, even though it falls apart at the end.

Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak (Zack Gottsagen), and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) raft their way down South

Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” opens in North Carolina and follows two young men.  The first is Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome living in a retirement home because he doesn’t have any family to care for him and nowhere else to go.  The other is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled fisherman.  Zak wants nothing more than to be a wrestler, and breaks out of the retirement home so he can track down and learn from his hero, a wrestler called the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).  Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), the woman who cares for Zak, is sent out to find him.  Tyler, meanwhile, is unable to sell stolen crabs without a license, and burns down the docks of two other fisherman in retaliation.  Now both on the run, Tyler and Zak wind up in the same boat (literally), and Tyler promises to take Zak to the Saltwater Redneck’s wrestling school on his way to Florida.  While the self-centered and rough Tyler is initially reluctant to have Zak tagging along, he quickly grows fond of him, and the two form a close bond.

Nilson and Schwartz drew inspiration from “Huckleberry Finn” for this story, which has both a modern and fantasy-like feel to it.  Zak and Tyler travel through the deep South on foot and by raft, and encounter a series of wild and colorful characters along the way.  The setting is far enough away from “modern civilization” for it to retain that storybook quality, but the message of acceptance and understanding others is at its heart.  In this case that largely applies to Zak, who has lived a life where he has been constantly called “retarded” and told he can’t do things other people can.  This movie does break ground in that it is almost unheard of to see an actor with special needs in a leading role, and Gottsagen is immediately endearing.  His character is also never relegated to a sidekick role; he is the heart of the story, and the character moving the story forward.  But Tyler has problems too, even if they aren’t immediately visible (he still feels the loss of his brother and best friend, played by Jon Bernthal in flashbacks).  Our understanding of Tyler’s backstory may only come in brief flashes, but it’s just enough to allow us to buy into Tyler opening up to Zak and forging a brotherly bond with him so quickly.

Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) agrees to let Zak (Zack Gottsagen) tag along with him

The script is funny, and the three leads (Gottsagen, LaBeouf, and Johnson) are all very different, but have terrific chemistry.  This is LaBeouf’s best role in years, and Johnson continues to distance herself from the negative reactions surrounding her performance in a big film franchise, showing the breadth of her talent in smaller indie films like this.  But while the bulk of the film is paced very well, the ending is incredibly abrupt, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide how to take the story any further and just stopped.  It may be an immediately satisfying ending for our characters, but ultimately, none of the problems they’ve been facing throughout the movie have been resolved—they’re just running away from them for a little bit longer.  And they can’t run away forever.

Despite its head-scratching finale, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is the feel-good movie of the year, delivering a story and a set of characters that are just the right combination of familiar and unique.  And it’s proof that the classic American fable and the spirit of adventure and discovery never does go out of style.

Runtime: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13.    

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