Chocolate pudding, river boat joy rides and soap-slicked skin — those are a few of the winning components of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s South by Southwest hit, “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” The film is a compelling dramedy about friendship, agency and the love that a man with Down syndrome has for professional wrestling.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), an adult with Down syndrome who resides in a Virginia senior care facility. Zak has no family and no access to a more tailored living community, so he finds clever ways to pass time. He gabs with Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a facility employee; he hatches escape plans with his elderly peers; and he watches VHS movies of his favorite wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). When one of Zak’s escape plans goes off without a hitch, he takes off clad only in his tighty-whities to find the Salt Water Redneck’s North Carolina wrestling school. Along the way, he meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a bereaved crabber who agrees to travel south with Zak on his way to Florida. But their plan is threatened on two fronts — by Eleanor’s attempts to bring Zak back to the facility and by Tyler’s inability to escape his criminal past.
The film excels on various fronts, but its representation of the South and of Zak are especially superb. It doesn’t clumsily rely on the exaggerated twing-twang talk and grease-penciled skin grime that less effective films posture as characteristically Southern. Rather, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” establishes its boondocks backdrop through grounded accent work and the languid interpersonal hospitality of the grocery store clerks and religious types that Zak and Tyler encounter during their journey. While Nilson and Schwartz wrote the film for Gottsagen to star as its lead, they don’t showcase his condition for audience pity or sympathy. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is by no means a condescending story about the bravery a man with Down syndrome has to dream. Instead, it’s a story about the formidable bond that forms between two men as they weed through backcountry brush toward a different future.
LaBeouf is an absolute riot as Tyler. His character is a fascinating blend of Southern-bred machismo, vitriol and obliterative sadness. Through a series of strategically-placed flashbacks, the audience learns that Tyler is responsible for the death of his beloved older brother and fellow crabber Mark (Jon Bernthal), who had fallen asleep in the passenger seat as an intoxicated Tyler tried to drive them home. Tyler’s quiet mourning adds depth to the otherwise jubilant moments that Tyler and Zak share as they practice their secret handshake and dance around beachside campfires. He doesn’t ever reveal his grief to Zak, but LaBeouf’s deeply emotive and compelling performance make it visually evident that Tyler’s sorrow motivates the love he builds for Zak. Therein lies an additional strength of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” — its overall narrative thesis: The strength of our character isn’t defined by our gestures toward doing good. Rather, it’s determined by our capacity to be intentional and actively express compassion.
Gottsagen has an outstanding debut as Zak, and as Zak’s formidable wrestling persona, the titular Peanut Butter Falcon. The film’s undulation between comedic wrestling sequences reminiscent of 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite” and serious meditations on society’s casual ableism make for an illuminating, enjoyable hour and a half. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one of the most thoughtful films released in 2019, leaving viewers with a better understanding of what it means to truly notice and befriend other people.