The cinematic equivalent of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a heartwarming, fictional tale of a boy with Down syndrome defying everyone to achieve his dream. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has been abandoned by his family with the state deciding to put him in a retirement home, one that he feels out of place in and frequently tries to escape. Though he is friends with Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who helps at the facility, Zak’s desire to be free and be treated as a 22-year-old finds him taking a less restrictive path. After breaking out during the night, he runs into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a young man being hunted by violent crabbers and his own personal demons alike. Together, they embark upon a journey so earnest it is nearly impossible to resist.
Much of the success of The Peanut Butter Falcon can be credited to Gottsagen, LaBeouf, and Johnson. As individuals, all three pour an incredibly genuine heart into their performances. The same can be said for their chemistry, playing off one another wonderfully. The three of them ensure that the rather on-the-nose script never rings false. The love between the characters and the ideas The Peanut Butter Falcon touches on all land with the same warmth and honesty. Zack Gottsagen is a real find, a gifted actor when it comes to comedic timing. LaBeouf’s ability to balance the rough edges of Tyler, his growing love for Zak, and his own grief is impeccable. He is a complex character with great depth, all of which is mined by LaBeouf without being over-the-top. LaBeouf shows the pain in his eyes and the love in his body language, transforming into Tyler. Johnson’s take on the caring, motherly, and increasingly understanding Eleanor is similarly impressive. Gracefully transitioning from concern for Zak to supporting him in his leap into adulthood, Eleanor’s every action oozes with affection and Johnson captures it all.
Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz capably balance the film’s lightness with its serious message. Scenes between Tyler and Zak are funny and the pair make for a strong comedic duo, but they can also be quite powerful. In the opening, Tyler is still mourning the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), blaming himself for the car accident that killed him. As a crabber, he has made enemies of the violent Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), both of whom now hunt him for revenge. Meanwhile, Zak copes with the abandonment of his family and trying to fit into a world that seems to not want him. Even if the world does want him, Zak fears it is one in which he does not fit. Both are trying to turn themselves into the “good guy” or hero of their own story, taking control of a life where they were largely sitting back as passengers. Perhaps on-the-nose, but its feel-good qualities ensure that the pleasure of watching this inspirational adventure never ceases.
The Peanut Butter Falcon further examines the struggles for those with Down syndrome in the world. Depicting the impact of the r-word on Zak, or the negative side effect of people’s belief in his limitations – even if their intentions are good – the film aims to show that a person with Down syndrome is more than that. Even Zak sees himself as just a “Down syndrome person” when he first meets Tyler, having been unable to escape the label his entire life. Through his journey, he will not just take charge of his life but also show all of the things he is capable of doing. Yes, he does have limitations, but they do not define him.
Beyond this heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon does trip up a few times. The stereotypical treatment of much of the country folks and crabbers, or the tired romantic angle between Eleanor and Tyler leave the film feeling hollow whenever Tyler and Zak’s adventure is not the focus. It is not quite as well-rounded as some of the adventures that inspired Nilson and Schwartz. Furthermore, the obsession with Eleanor’s appearance is a bit odd, with a supermodel-esque scene as she walks into a rural convenience store like a runway and is quickly ogled by Tyler and the owner.
Scenes with the religious blind man Jasper (Wayne Dehart) similarly fall short, offering up some heavy-handed symbolism regarding Tyler and Zak being “lost sheep” hunted by wolves. Tyler may be a sympathetic figure, but this angle reflects The Peanut Butter Falcon’s unwillingness to deal with his crime of burning down the docks. Sure, Duncan and Ratboy are evil men, but a brief mention of the scale of the damage Tyler caused is quickly forgotten in favor of emphasizing his friendship with Zak. Thus, while The Peanut Butter Falcon is overwhelmingly sweet and enjoyable, it does have flaws that prevent it from being a truly great film or one that sufficiently explores its complex characters.
A light-hearted, funny, and enjoyable film, The Peanut Butter Falcon is not perfect but it largely works. Terrific performances from all involved, a heartwarming and well-intentioned message, and a lot of heart bolster this modern-day fable. It is one of those films that leaves viewers with a smile on their face and a lifted spirit, even if its faults hold it back from being a truly well-rounded and assured work.