You won’t find many low-budget American indie films with a cast that includes Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Bruce Dern, but then again The Peanut Butter Falcon isn’t really like any other movie at all. The wholesome road trip comedy, which follows a 22-year-old Zak (Zack Gottsagen) – who has Down’s syndrome – and his unlikely friendship with Tyler (LaBeaouf), was a hit at South by Southwest in March and finally gets a wide release in late 2019. It’s been worth the wait.
The feature-length debut of writer-director duo Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon subverts the buddy dynamic found in seminal American culture like Mark Twain, Of Mice & Men or Midnight Cowboy. LaBeaouf is a reliable (sort of) straight man to Gottsagen’s clownish Zak, putting in one of the best performances of his career. LaBeaouf’s charisma and heart reminded me why he briefly became the Hollywood hunk for a time, starring in two Transformers movies and an Indiana Jones within three years (plus the Spielberg-exec produced box office topper Eagle Eye). The actor’s recent pivot toward indie fare – in large part a backlash against the creative drought of those movies – has catalysed a renaissance for the actor and allowed him to learn by doing, evolving into the performer he’s wanted to be all this time. Similar could be said of Dakota Johnson who, as a Fifty Shades alum, is initially jarring as the retirement home carer Eleanor but quickly embodies the kindness and sensitivity of her character with little difficulty.
And that’s not to mention Gottsagen, a trained actor who grew up watching LaBeouf. A friend of Nilson and Schwartz, Zak was a part written with Gottsagen in mind – and that’s obvious. Zak and Tyler’s chemistry is so understated and effective that you almost forget just how absurd much of this story is. Without overselling references to other work – though Nilson and Schwartz wear those not too far from the sleeve – The Peanut Butter Falcon becomes a sort of Beckettian Swiss Army Man, just as interested in fantasy and allegory as it is in documenting the everyday. That much is clear from the very start, with Zak’s dream to become a professional wrestler – inspired by VHS tapes of The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) – seeming far-fetched until suddenly it isn’t.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a life-affirming odyssey through the limitations of normalcy and the everyday inhibitions that entrap us – apparent and invisible. Through a set of parables that never seem preachy or overstated, Nilson and Schwartz do some old-fashioned storytelling through the epic journeys each of their characters are going on. Because, after all, they’re learning by doing.