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Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon

With a title like The Peanut Butter Falcon, a movie has a lot to rise above.  Fortunately, it manages to do just that, and is even sort of engaging, which is good when you consider how corny and almost hokey the movie can get.  This is a big hearted modern day take on The Adventures of Huck Finn that manages to rise above its somewhat cliched narrative.

The big attraction here is its lead star, Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down Syndrome who manages to deliver a sweet, funny and compelling performance as Zak, a young man who has been shunned by everyone because of his disability.  His family has abandoned him at an old folks home, because he has no one else to look after him.  Zak spends his days watching an old VHS tape of a popular 1980s Pro Wrestler called the Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and plotting ways to escape the home so that he can make the journey to meet his Wrestling idol.  With the help of his elderly roommate (a funny Bruce Dern), Zak does manage to escape, although he has to discard most of his clothes to do so.  Dressed only in his underwear, and with no money or means of transport, Zak's journey at first seems impossible.

But then he runs into another young man who is on the run for his own reasons.  Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, more sincere and honest than he's ever been on the screen) is a self-destructive fisherman with a tragic past who encounters Zak when he stows away on Tyler's boat.  They form a reluctant bond and before you know it, the two become reliable friends.  For Zak, Tyler knows the way to get him to his goal, and also is the first person in his life who doesn't treat him as being different from everyone else.  All his life, Zak has been told he can't do certain things, but because of Tyler, he feels confidence for the first time.  As for Tyler, he has been in a constant downward-spiral since he caused an accident that took the life of his brother (Jon Bernthal in flashbacks), and young Zak is the first friend he's had since then.

The two begin a journey down the river by any means necessary, whether it be Tyler's boat, or a make shift raft at one point.  All the while, both are being pursued by different people for different reasons.  Tyler is in trouble with some dangerous goons who want to hurt or possibly kill him for stealing their fishing profits, while Zak's caretaker from the home (Dakota Johnson) is trying to find him before he gets in trouble.  There are encounters with a blind Bible-thumping old man, run-ins with colorful characters along the way, and quite a lot of implausibility here.  But, The Peanut Butter Falcon rises above it all, thanks to the performances of both Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who share a warm chemistry.  And yes, we do eventually figure out what the title means, as it becomes Zak's Pro Wrestling name.

The film ultimately works not as a journey picture, but because of the emotional journey both men take in order to improve themselves.  Zak learns that he is capable of much more than he ever dreamed of, while Tyler finally decides to forgive himself for his past mistakes.  There were moments where I was kind of wondering where the movie was going, as it seemed to be dragging its feet, but I was constantly engaged by the winning performances.  Even the somewhat out of the blue romantic relationship that LaBeouf and Johnson start to develop kind of won me over by the end.  The movie is laid back, but not deadly dull.  This is the kind of movie where we admire the scenery, the pleasant soundtrack, and the performances on display, rather than a gripping narrative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon could have easily gone wrong in so many ways.  It could have been sappy, or made its Down Syndrome lead into a "cute" little comedian.  But, you can tell that first-time feature writers and directors, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, cared about this project and their young star too much for that.  The story goes that the filmmakers met Gottsagen while volunteering at a theater camp, struck up a friendship, and promised that they would make a movie starring him.  Not only have they done that, but he has returned the favor by giving one of the more truly inspiring performances of the year.

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