Editor KC Wingert reviews our first film from BFI LFF 2019.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Making its UK premiere at LFF, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a delightful dramedy from collaborators Tyler Nilsen and Michael Schwartz, whose writing recalls the humor and delight of American novelist Mark Twain and whose comical directorial style rivals the Coen Brothers for their quirky contribution to modern American folklore.
The first feature-length narrative from the filmmaking duo, The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down’s syndrome placed in a nursing home after his family forfeits him to the state. Despite friendships with the elderly residents of his home and a close relationship to his direct caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak feels imprisoned. He wants to explore the world before he gets too old, and his only respite from his monotonous life is his fantasy of becoming a professional wrestler under the tutelage of his hero Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). He cleverly configures numerous madcap escape schemes with the help of his older roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), which provide many laugh-out-loud moments within the first 20 minutes. But The Peanut Butter Falcon is not all silliness—rather, it becomes a more tender film when, in one of his late-night escape attempts, an underwear-clad Zak stows away on a boat stolen by the churlish Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) as he skips town.
Stuck with a differently-abled stranger wearing nothing but his underwear, Tyler is at first disgruntled. LaBeouf masterfully plays this character as a surly loner whose gruff exterior slowly chips away as he befriends and aides Zak on a journey to the Saltwater Redneck’s wrestling school. Tyler, a sort of frontiersman/survivalist who seems to know how to navigate the rugged Outer Banks but can’t seem to stay out of trouble, is on the run from two fishermen from whom he stole crab traps and whose equipment he burned in retaliation for jumping him.
Tyler, we find out, has lost his brother—and blames himself for the tragic death. But as he grows closer to fellow misfit Zak, he finds fraternity in his relationship to his lovably idiosyncratic companion. Watching LaBeouf and Gottsagen onscreen together is an absolute delight; their palpable chemistry creates an incredible friendship onscreen. It is satisfying to see the goofy LaBeouf act without condescension alongside a young man with Down’s syndrome, especially in a story that is less about “overcoming” a disability and more about embracing the challenges and joys of understanding and loving someone with Down’s. As for Gottsagen, his empowering performance highlights the humour and skill so many people with Down’s syndrome possess while reminding viewers that having a disability does not always mean a person is helpless.
Overall, The Peanut Butter Falcon easily interweaves humour with heartbreak, moments of joy with pangs of dolour. It feels much like the tall tales of Twain’s Americana, with magical moments punctuating the narrative into a romantic frontier myth akin to those which make up much of American folklore. Themes of self-realisation and cleansing give the characters of The Peanut Butter Falcon beautiful, heartwarming redemption arcs which will leave viewers euphoric. Ending on a slightly uncertain (but happy!) note, this expertly-crafted story from Nilsen and Schwartz reminds viewers that one’s story isn’t over ‘til it’s over, and that there is always room in life for rebirth, restoration, and growth.