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A hero’s journey – ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’

September 4, 2019
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The tail end of the summer is often a tough time at the movie theater. The blockbusters have all made their entrances, their massive opening weekends filled with quips and explosions, while the fall/winter blend of awards contenders and winter blockbusters (yeah, they’re a thing now) has yet to kick off. Most of the time, that means that the cupboard is bare.

But what it ALSO means is that I sometimes get a chance to see something I otherwise wouldn’t – the occasional surprise gets a moment in the sun.

That’s what I got with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a heartfelt and surprisingly sweet indie comedy/drama that is somehow both completely out of place and utterly at home on the late summer big screen. It’s the story of a young man willing to do whatever it takes to follow his passion, despite living in a world that refuses to believe he’s capable of, well … anything, really.

It’s a modern-day fable, a reimagined “Huckleberry Finn” with loads of swampy charm and a captivating cast that effectively balances triumph and tragedy while introducing audiences to a lead actor unlike any we’ve seen. It’s a film that helps us to understand that sometimes the bad guy is actually good – and that the good guy sometimes yearns to be bad.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen in his feature debut) is a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome living in North Carolina. He’s a ward of the state, but circumstances have led to him living in an elderly care facility. His primary caregiver is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, “Bad Times at the El Royale”); she wants to help Zak, but recognizes that living amongst the elderly is far from ideal.

With an assist from his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Zak makes a break for it. His destination? The professional wrestling school featured on the VHS tape he’s watched for years. Said school – operated by Zak’s hero the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church, “Hellboy”) – is many miles away; it’s a dangerous journey for Zak to undertake alone.

Providence smiles upon our erstwhile wrestler when he inadvertently stows away on the boat of Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, “Borg vs. McEnroe”), a man dealing with struggles of his own. Tyler’s unresolved issues lead to him making enemies of brothers Duncan (John Hawkes, “Unlovable”) and Ratby (rapper Yelawolf in his feature debut). In the course of his efforts to escape the brothers’ wrath, Tyler accidentally takes Zak along with him.

Zak’s passion and purity of spirit speak to something inside Tyler, something that has lain dormant for some time. And so, Tyler agrees to help Zak make his way to the wrestling school – an agreement that leads to the two becoming close friends as they make their way through the Outer Banks. Whether they’re in a motorboat, on foot or floating on a makeshift raft, this unlikely pairing moves forward – one pursuing a lifelong dream, the other hoping to help that dream come true.

Of course, it isn’t as easy as all that. There are obstacles a-plenty, to be sure, but there are also some unexpected allies along the way. And at the center of it all, an unconventional friendship between two people who need one another more than they could ever truly understand.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” has received much of its attention due to the performance of young Zack Gottsagen. And with good reason – people like him aren’t often represented in film, and certainly not empowered to the degree that this character is. It’s the sort of thing that could easily have felt exploitative and/or condescending, but it never does. There’s a real joyfulness to the work that is a delight to watch.

But Gottsagen isn’t the only reason to watch this film. While his actions left him as a bit of a pop culture punchline for a stretch, LaBeouf’s talent has never been in dispute. He’s shown glimpses of pulling out of the tailspin in recent years; this movie is a fine example of what he can bring to the table in the right situation. He’s equal parts scumbag and sweetheart, walking a fine line and making it work. Johnson has her moments, though she doesn’t quite match the energy of her co-stars; she’s good, but not great. In truth, the film is at its best when Gottsagen and LaBeouf are alone on screen.

It’s a solid ensemble as well, with character actors like Church and Dern stealing scenes and real-life pro wrestling icons like Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts showing up.

The writer/director team of Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz make their feature debuts with this film, a project on which they’ve been working since first meeting Gottsagen at an acting camp in California back in 2011. Their relative inexperience occasionally makes itself known, with some narrative and visual choices that feel a little simplistic or on-the-nose, but for the most part, they find ways to capture the rich vividness of the landscape in which they’re working and pull quality performances from a cast of vastly varied experience.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” might not be a perfect movie, but it is certainly a worthwhile one – and a very good one. With strong work from the ensemble – particularly the leads – and a clear enthusiasm for both the story being told and storytelling in general, it is a film driven by humor and heart. It might be a bit clumsy and overly earnest in places, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that makes you feel more than this one does.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 September 2019 11:51

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