The big-hearted indie drama “The Peanut Butter Falcon” does just about everything right. Here is a sentimental, heartwarming journey that manages to stay out of the groan-and-eye-rolling territory due to its universal story, timeless feel, Southern charm, and terrific chemistry between the lead actors.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, runs away from a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of attending the professional wrestling school run by his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Zak crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local outlaw on the run, and the two embark on a modern Mark Twain style adventure journey down the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Tyler becomes Zak’s wise instructor of life, teaching him the ways of the world and becoming his trusted best friend. Together the men traverse deltas and encounter a series of threats and random misadventures, until Zak’s kind guardian Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) eventually discovers their whereabouts and insists that he must return to his normal life.
The low-budget film benefits from not only from the compelling small scale story, but also from the earnest performances of the entire cast (including small supporting turns from John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, and Jon Bernthal).
LaBeouf is in elite form, bringing a rugged authenticity to his character. He gives one of my very favorite lead performances so far this year, and it’s some of the best work he’s ever done. Not letting the heaps of criticism from her roles in the “Fifty Shades” series keep her down, Johnson is also absolutely terrific here and should stick to indie work like this. Even if you think you don’t like her, this film may very well change your perception of her talent and screen presence.
And don’t worry about Gottsagen’s performance being gimmicky or played in a mean-spirited manner. It isn’t at all, and Gottsagen brings a sweet, contagious purity to his character. All three actors work so well together that I would love to see them star in another film sometime in the future.
The intimate writing and direction (both by Tyler Nilson, and Michael Schwartz) is spot-on, especially for a small-scale tale of kindness and acceptance. The rambling adventure aspects of the story work well as a buddy drama, and the film flows with an independent spirit that’s smart and actually treats the audience like intellectuals. It’s an authentic take on what it means to be a good friend and the steps you can take to create your own unlikely family. While it’s sweet and touching, this (thankfully) isn’t a dumb movie.
In the end, the film provides gentle encouragement to break out and start living your best life. In one memorable scene, Tyler says it best: “You’re gonna die, it’s a matter of time. The question is, will they have a good story to tell about you when you’re gone?”