3.5 out of 5 stars
The idea for The Peanut Butter Falcon had its origins at a camp for actors with disabilities, where Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (director/writers) met Zack Gottsagen. Their meeting led to the filmmakers considering a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn where two men from different worlds must overcome prejudice and hardship on the way to becoming friends. Gottsagen is an actor with Downs Syndrome who uses his talents and dreams to become the heart of this water-borne journey.
Zak (Gottsagen) is a ward of the state and must live in a retirement village, despite being a 22-year-old man with Downs Syndrome. His family has abandoned him and the state does not have the proper facilities to care for the young man. All he does is dream of being a professional wrestler and attending the Salt Water Redneck’s (Thomas Haden Church) wrestling school. The only way he will be able to achieve his goals is to escape from the home. After multiple attempts, Zak finally gets his break with the assistance of his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern). With no money or clothes, his only choice is to stow away in a crab boat on the docks.
The boat belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman who had fallen on hard times and was the victim of his own bad choices. As the waterman is attempting to allude two fellow crabbers he had crossed, Tyler discovers the Down Syndrome patient in his boat. Both of them were on the run and had similar destinations down the coast. These similarities in their lives lead them to travel together through the waterways and farms of the coastline.
Zak must stay ahead of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), his ward from the retirement village before he reaches the wrestling school. While Tyler must remain off the main roads to avoid being spotted by Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), who hope to get their payback by taking it out of his hide. The two would-be fugitives work their way down the coast, building their friendship and make some unlikely allies along the way.
Doing a modern retelling of Mark Twain’s classic is a challenge most would not want to undertake, but it all comes together exceptionally well. It proves to be a heart-warming story that exposes the continuing prejudice of the mentally-disadvantaged. Besides the brilliant source material, the centrepiece of the film that makes it work is the relationship between LaBeouf and Gottsagen. The two actors and the cast manage to pull this story off with authenticity, flare and an endearing tone that produces one of the best buddy cinematic experiences in years. The surrounding cast does add to the adventure, but it is the genuine chemistry of these two actors that keeps the story afloat.
For those who have not encountered the wetlands of the eastern seaboard of the United States, this backdrop provides a fresh change from the river ride of Twain’s original tale. The baptism symbolism that is provided by this setting shows how something new is born through this sailing expedition. Zak moves towards independence and Tyler must come to terms with the loss of his brother while accepting his surrogate replacement. Then Eleanor must decide what she is willing to do for the sake of her patient and friend who is less disabled than she was led to believe and the Saltwater Redneck even sees a rebirth of his past love of wrestling. The symbolism moves into reality when the men meet Blind Jasper Jones (Wayne Dehart) who encourages them to experience an actual baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.
‘Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.’ - Colossians 2:12
The Peanut Butter Falcon manages to float into cinemas quietly, but at the end of the sojourn, it will not be very easy for audiences not to be effectively changed. Some aspects of the tale do become mythical in proportion, but the final product is a simple story that will change the hearts of humans. Showing that many times we are perfectly made in our imperfections and these elements of each person can be embraced and celebrated.