A rich and warmly resonant contemporary reimagining of ‘The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn’, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” brings a funny, moving, feel-good slice of modern Americana to the big screen, powered by some big-hearted performances.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome, dreams of leaving his life in a nursing home and travelling to the wrestling school of his hero, The Saltwater Redneck. Helped to escape by his elderly roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak manages to escape and falls in with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled crab poacher nursing his own world-weary hurts and on the run from two crab fisherman to whom he owes money. The two unlikely companions then decide to head south together, pursued by his carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
A story of redemption and unexpected kindness in an uncaring world, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” most welcome triumph is in how it treats its central character’s disability. The key moment is when Zak solemnly informs Tyler that he is ‘a Down Syndrome man’ and Tyler responds that he ‘doesn’t give a shit’; not in a callous, dismissive way but because it makes no difference to him at all. In a script which treats the character of Zak with both dignity and the respect to allow him to be undignified too, there’s a wonderful authenticity to the burgeoning friendship and each character feels fully evolved and real. Even when their vagabond voyage is joined by Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor, there are wonderfully touching character moments as even she is forced to confront her own well-meaning subconscious prejudices and begins to see Zak in a whole new light.
Gottsagen is given the freedom to deliver a wonderfully naturalistic performance, a world away from the mannered ‘very special episode’ approach that has often dogged portrayals of Down Syndrome in film and television and is magnetic on screen, bringing humour, heroism and fearless strength to the role. Shia LaBeouf, likewise, impresses with a performance of tremendous subtlety and craft, developing a touching and easy chemistry with Gottsagen and, later, with Johnson as he gradually brings Tyler back from the nihilistic brink and reengages with the world by helping Zak achieve his dream. In a way, LaBeouf and Johnson both play characters trying to escape and atone for the big mistakes of their past (“Transformers” for him, “50 Shades Of Grey” for her) but it’s in the small moments – such as Thomas Hayden Church’s scene-stealing turn as the ex-Saltwater Redneck – that the film delights and moves in equal measure.
Adding atmosphere and a dilapidated beauty is the backdrop of the Georgia backwaters, exquisitely captured in all its decaying, tarnished glory. From the wave-swept mudflats of the estuaries to the rust-stained waters of a baptismal stream, the scenery provides as much colour and character as the people Zak and Tyler meet along the way and the visuals are supported by an intoxicating soundtrack weaving together the music of the land with bluegrass, folk songs and spirituals combining into something poetic and timeless.