On paper, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” sounds like a cursed film; like a straight-faced parody of the quirkiest and most nauseatingly schematic American indies. The title alone takes you back to the awful darkness of “Napoleon Dynamite,” and the premise — a winsome young wrestling fan with Down syndrome escapes from his care facility with the help of a depressed crab fisherman played by Shia LaBeouf — could’ve been cobbled together by a computer program that’s been fed 20 years’ worth of rejected Sundance scripts.
And the opening few minutes of the actual movie, in which our hero attempts a cute and kooky jailbreak while a banjo-tinged b-side from the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” score wails on the soundtrack, seem determined to confirm your most cynical suspicions. In hindsight, however, that rope-a-dope of a start is actually a fitting introduction to a warm (if somewhat overcooked) dramedy about people who’ve lost faith in themselves, and in what unique value they have to offer to the world.
The feature debut of filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” wouldn’t work without LaBeouf’s raw and endearingly turbulent performance, but it wouldn’t even exist without Zack Gottsagen, a one-of-a-kind talent who the co-directors met at a camp for actors with disabilities. Gottsagen, who’s so natural on screen that he grounds the film in reality during even its most precious and prescriptive moments, inhabits his role with enough nuance and dimensionality to embarrass the very idea of casting an enabled person in a role like this. It’s a performance that doesn’t have any need for asterisks: Gottsagen is sympathetic without being pitiable, sweet without being saintly, and funny without making himself the butt of every joke. While the writing is often perfunctory, Gottsagen has a way of making every story beat feel sincere.
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To Nilson and Schwartz’s credit, it helps that Gottsagen’s character is defined by his strength. His name is Zak, he’s confined to a North Carolina facility because he doesn’t have any family who can look after him, and his dream is to become a wrestler like his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, who first pops up in the faded VHS tapes that Zak obsessively rewatches, and then returns in the third act to fulfill the numbingly predictable demands of his role). There are plenty of things that Zak may not be able to do with his life, but wrestling isn’t necessarily one of them — his entire living situation is conditioned upon the weaknesses that people see in him, but the kid is built like a diesel-powered SUV. When Zak breaks out of his “home” wearing nothing but his underoos, his rascally old roommate (Bruce Dern, being very Bruce Dern) jokes that he just pulled the window bars apart.
Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), the beautiful — but damaged! — aide who’s cared for Zak for the last two-and-a-half years, isn’t amused. Neither is Tyler (LaBeouf), a bearded and brittle fisherman who’s too busy mourning the loss of his actual family to entertain the idea of making a new one (Jon Bernthal plays his dead brother in a distracting cameo). Tyler isn’t the hardest trawler in the delta, but he might be the most desperate. And when he loses his precious fishing license, he decides to steal a boat from the two scariest men you could ever expect to find south of Raleigh (John Hawkes and the rapper Yelawolf bring a few unleaded gallons of toxic masculinity to their maddeningly basic villain roles). Little does Tyler know that Zak is stowing away onboard, and in desperate need of someone to see his worth. And maybe give him some pants.
And so begins one of recent cinema’s more unusual riffs on “Huck Finn,” as Tyler and Zak sail through the mythic coastal waters in search of a long-retired wrestler, and a measure of the strength that you can only get from other people. Nothing about their adventure is the least bit unpredictable — the bad guys show up exactly when you expect them to, and Eleanor’s manhunt ends with her getting roped into being the mother of the film’s makeshift family — and the plot beats that push the movie downstream range from tired to exasperating.
A scene where Zak is almost crushed by a shrimp boat is well-staged, but transparent in its purpose of drawing he and Tyler closer together. An extended bit where the boys meet a mystical, blind, shotgun-toting black man would be suspect even if it didn’t feel like this movie’s equivalent of the rubber plantation scene from “Apocalypse Now Redux,” and only exist so that someone else can “see” the goodness emanating from these two fugitives.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” saves the worst for last, as the plot kicks into gear during the third act and blunts the film’s delicate emotional texture into a contrived drumbeat of dull choices. Church’s inevitable reappearance adds yet another broken character to a story in which even the most capable of people feel left behind, and Nilson and Schwartz’s script broadens things out at the exact moment that it should be digging a bit deeper into the drama it’s already laid out. So many strained and nonsensical turns are packed into the last 30 minutes, just so the movie can arrive at a climax that makes good on its themes while stranding the characters who brought them to life.
But when “The Peanut Butter Falcon” trusts in the strength it finds in Zak, Tyler, Eleanor, and even Salt Water Redneck, it can be a thing of beauty. The best and most affecting scenes are also its least explicitly purposeful, as the film transcends its iffy story mechanics whenever things slow down enough for everyone to really see each other. The bond that forms between Tyler and Zak is so rich and believable, as both actors are casually able to sell us on the idea that their characters fit together.
Shia LaBeouf, proving once again that he’s talented enough to get away with being Shia LaBeouf, evinces a genuine affection for his new friend and surrogate son — a feeling born from his own perilous notions of weakness and self-worth. Gottsagen beautifully internalizes the sentiment that the world will only let Zak be a burden or a heel, and he lets Tyler shake him free of that delusion with grace, levity, and a few killer lines (“What’s rule number one?” Tyler asks about life on the lam. “Party!,” Tyler matter-of-factly replies).
For a movie that often seems weighed down by prescriptive notions of personal betterment, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” takes flight in moments like the one where Tyler and Zak just sit on the shares of some inlet and playfully slap each other in the face for a minute. Not soft enough to be condescending, but not hard enough to hurt. For the first time in a long time, these two men are cognizant of their own strength.
Roadside Attractions will release “The Peanut Butter Falcon” in theaters on Friday, August 9.