The Peanut Butter Falcon, 2019.
Directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz.
Starring Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, and Mick Foley.
A man with Down syndrome and a passion for wrestling escapes from a nursing home and joins a man on the run to pursue his dreams.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A man with Down syndrome (22-year-old Zak, played by Zack Gottsagen) runs away from a nursing home where he lives to pursue his dream of attending a wrestling school and becoming a professional wrestler, all while teaming up with a small time outlaw on the run. This is the premise of the debut feature by writer-director duo Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon, a modern-day Mark Twain fable that will win over your heart.
Zack Gottsagen plays Zak with an unexpected nuance in a role that is extremely uncommon for disabled folks. During a Q&A following the film’s premiere at SXSW, the directors talked about how they adapted the role according to Zack’s personality, including adding the wrestling sub-plot and an affinity for swimming, given that the real Zack is both a wrestling enthusiast and a Special Olympics swimmer. Zak isn’t the butt of any jokes, neither is he a source of drama based purely on his condition, he is a fully developed character that is sweet, full of heart, a bit annoying, and sometimes kind of a jerk, but simply impossible to resist.
After escaping the nursing home on his way to find the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck, Zak meets with another man on the run, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). The two have wonderful chemistry together, and the dialogue feels so natural it makes you wonder how much was improvised on set. One could easily watch a whole TV show’s of their adventures through the forests and deltas of North Carolina, their chugging of whiskey, building of makeshift rafts, and constant tempting death.
Rounding up the cast is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) the one kind nursing home employee tasked with finding Zak and bringing him home. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with Eleanor, pushing her to the sidelines to serve as a plot device. Thankfully, the rest of the supporting cast gets a better treatment, and the colourful ensemble brings to mind the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?
It is no coincidence that the film name-drops Mark Twain, as there is a sense of adventure, a love for the American South (even though it knows when to criticize it) and timelessness to The Peanut Butter Falcon that feels like an adaptation of a long-lost story by the famous author. Sure, there is plenty of silliness in the film, but it always knows when to pull on the heart strings.
The Peanut Butter Falcon may not reinvent the wheel, but the relationship at the core of the film and the stellar performances by LaBeouf and Gottsagen will melt your heart.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★