The old saying “Don't judge a book by its cover” could be modified to say “Don't judge a movie by its plot synopsis.” The Peanut Butter Falcon is proof. The story sounds corny and manipulative when you try to describe it. How it plays, though, is a whole other matter. We're living in some crazy, occasionally disturbing times. Turn on the news and you're almost guaranteed to find something to stress out about. This film is an antidote to that. I responded strongly to its optimism, and suspect others will too.
Zak (Zack Gottsagan) is a young man with Down syndrome who lives in a nursing home with his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern). To say he dislikes it there would be an understatement. One evening, Zak escapes and soon encounters Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a struggling fisherman. Tyler is also on the lam because he stole equipment from a violent crab trapper, Duncan (John Hawkes), who wants revenge. He needs somewhere to go, so he agrees to help Zak make a rather long trek through Virginia to find the wrestling school run by his favorite professional wrestler. (The title refers to the wrestling persona Zak wants to assume.) They have no car, so walking or floating a raft down the river are the only viable travel options. Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, the care home worker sent to find and retrieve Zak. Instead, she ends up joining them.
How is The Peanut Butter Falcon sounding right now? Schmaltzy, perhaps? It certainly checks all the boxes for that. A message about not treating people with disabilities differently, an unlikely romance, moments of wacky comedy, life lessons learned – all present and accounted for. The various elements that comprise the story are, shall we say, diverse, too. In no way do they seem like they should occupy space within the same movie.
The Peanut Butter Falcon could have been so, so awful, and yet it's totally not. An earnest tone prevents it from sinking into the realm of cheesiness. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who wrote and directed together, don't condescend to the characters. Mocking their quirks and foibles would have been easy. Instead, the filmmakers display obvious affection for Zak, Tyler, and Eleanor. We're not asked to laugh at them, we're asked to see ourselves in them. Even if we've never been in these exact situations, we've all at some point tried to make ourselves happier in life. We've all formed a bond with someone we wouldn't have anticipated liking. Those are the subjects the film is about.
Exceptionally good performances make it come alive. Shia LaBeouf does some of the best work of his career. At first, Tyler seems like an unsympathetic punk. Gradually, he shows another side, taking Zak under his wing and displaying significant acts of kindness toward him. The actor gets fully inside the character's skin, creating someone who legitimately wins us over. Dakota Johnson deftly avoids turning Eleanor into a screechy type-A cliché. She brings a sense of warmth that's very appealing. Newcomer Zack Gottsagan displays good comic timing and a winning personality. The three blend wonderfully together.
The sincere and charming tone of The Peanut Butter Falcon really sucks you in. Nilson and Schwartz have made a nice film about nice people who sometimes mess up yet remain fundamentally decent. They look out for and support each other. Where the journey takes them may be predictable, but it doesn't matter. The message is that kind people find one another in this big, crazy world, and the world is indeed better because of it.
Hopeful movies like this are just what we need right now.
out of four
The Peanut Butter Falcon is rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.