Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

Rule #1: party. This movie had me from the trailer and for a film not based on some form of intellectual property and without previous installments, getting hooked so quickly doesn’t happen all too often these days. But I dare you to go watch the trailer and tell me the movie doesn’t look heartwarming! The Peanut Butter Falcon is a story about three people lost in tragedies who find meaning together in the relationships they form. Those three characters are played ever so eloquently by Shia Labeouf (Disturbia, Transformers), Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey, Suspiria) and up-and-coming actor Zack Gottsagen.
Zak (Gottsagen) is a young adult with Down syndrome who is placed in an elderly care facility by the state because he has no family to support him. His dream is to attend the wrestling school run by his hero, a famous wrestler known as The Salt Water Redneck (played by one of my favorite B-list actors, Thomas Haden Church). Basically there are two things that Zak does to pass the time: 1) watch an old VHS tape of the wrestler’s biggest moments and 2) plan his escape. Although he is beloved by residents and his caretaker, Eleanor (Johnson), other orderlies verbally abuse Zak because of his disability. One night, with the help of an older resident, Zak makes his escape from the facility (mostly naked) and runs to the local marina where he hides on a crab boat owned by Tyler (LaBeouf). The next morning, Tyler takes off on his boat in an attempt to escape some crab fishermen whose supplies he burned, unknowingly with Zak still hiding on board. Upon being discovered, Tyler is reluctant to engage with Zak but eventually allows him to tag along as he plans to head North in search of a new life. As Eleanor is tasked with finding and retrieving Zak, her path intersects with Tyler’s and together they must determine how to move forward in Zak’s best interests.
To a certain extent, this film is comparable to a modern-day Huck Finn story (at a minimum they both involve rafting down a river). Tyler is initially in conflict with whether it is okay to leave behind a mentally disabled young man in order to take his best chances of escaping to a new life. After making the choice to bring him with in order to drop him off at the wrestling school, Tyler ends up befriending Zak and helping him to prepare for his dream as a wrestler. He finds value in Zak’s friendship and counsels him that his worth isn’t based in the way he is perceived by others, something in direct opposition with what Zak has been told by those in his past. In Mark Twain’s lecture notes, he says, “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience.” Tyler is running from his own grief after losing his brother and although he doesn’t always speak kindly or look approachable, his heart guides him to do what is right for Zak. The same can be said for Eleanor, who also is not too far removed from losing a loved one. Her heart to do what’s best for Zak is stronger than her conscience to do exactly as she is told, knowing that Zak’s escape will have dire consequences on his future, which is controlled by a shady facility manager. Together they showcase the good that can come from messed up situations and how friendships can form in the most unlikely of circumstances.
I really enjoyed all of the acting in this movie. Shia LaBeouf hasn’t truly captured my attention like he does in this film…maybe ever? He’s been all over Hollywood culture for his “performance art” appearances (e.g. sitting in gallery crying for almost a week wearing a paper bag over his head that reads “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE”) and also his run-ins with the law for disorderly conduct. He was arrested in 2014 but even after attending outpatient treatment for alcoholism, he was arrested again in 2017 (during filming for this movie, almost stopping the project). It wasn’t until his co-worker Gottsagen had a tough-love conversation with him that he acknowledges he sobered up and turned his life around. And whether it remains true today, he really pours his heart into Tyler and the character’s relationship with Zak. Even Dakota Johnson holds her own with a shorter screen time and less character importance to the plot. She does a great job acting for her character who really cares for and wants to find her patient, but isn’t really sure what she is going to do once she finds him. Her character is strong but also consistently indecisive, as we see the duty vs. reluctance to let Zak go have his adventure fit in well alongside her judgments of Tyler as a person.
All things considered, the real standout actor in this film is Gottsagen. Growing up with a dream of acting, he wasn’t going to let Down syndrome get in the way. He pursued acting school and befriended the directing pair Nilson and Schwartz (also their first feature length film) who promised Zack that they would make a movie starring him as their lead. And although it took a few years to put together, they came through. Zack’s own dreams are mirrored by his character’s: to do something that seems unlikely to be accomplished by everyone around you. A Down syndrome boy becoming a wrestler, or actor? But the dedication and hard work pays off when dreams and reality collide. Both Zak and Zack remind us that we all have a choice when it comes to our perspective on life; we can either sulk in the negatives and accept defeat or we can enjoy the positives and live with determination and hope. I wasn’t sure how to feel about laughing at and with Zak as a Down syndrome person…his character is just so funny! But I had to remind myself that Gottsagen has worked his entire adult life up until now to get on screen in this movie. He worked tirelessly through school to perform with the caliber of acting that he does in this film. If his aim is for an audience to laugh at his jokes and with his character, then dammit all if I’m not going to laugh the loudest! Just like with any other comedian or hilarious performance, he deserves the credit.
Relationships are a strange thing. They come and go, sometimes when you least expect it. But like Zak says, “friends are the family you choose.” And this movie reminds us that family can look very different throughout life, but ultimately family looks after one another. Also, if you really don’t like someone, smack talk can definitely be telling them “you’re not invited to my birthday party!” I obviously highly recommend you go see this movie and support the tremendous efforts made by Gottsagen to be the lead in a wide-release, critically acclaimed film. It’s a good reminder to never give up on a dream and to be someone who is willing to give humbly and generously to others. I’m hopefully back to writing form here as we head into the always-interesting early Fall movie season, kicked off this year by the release of IT Chapter Two hitting theatres this weekend. Be on the lookout for a review of that and more in the coming weeks. Cheers!

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