I’ve stopped watching trailers before screenings. I don’t know why, it’s just something that’s happened. Offered the chance to see The Peanut Butter Falcon, I was intrigued – a great title, with two big names attached. And now, writing this, I’m so pleased to have skipped the trailer’s link, to have gone in with zero expectations. Because this is something special.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has a dream. As a young adult with Down’s syndrome living in an old age care home, he knows he sticks out, that he doesn’t fit in. Which is why he wants to leave to fulfil his aspiration of becoming a professional wrestler, much like his hero The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). So one night, he does just that by slipping between the bars on his room’s window and running away in his underwear.
Cut to the next day. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) has been caught sabotaging the fishing nets of rival Duncan (John Hawkes) and is now on the run. Stumbling across Zak, who’s attempting to make his way down the coast to find Mr Redneck’s wrestling school, Tyler reluctantly agrees to help, if only to keep him safe on the way. Tyler’s seen the dark side of life and feels an obligation to help Zak, and from this a beautiful friendship blossoms. But when Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s carer, catches up with them, it seems their newfound brotherhood is set to come to a fast end if they can’t convince her to join them on their journey.
With a mix of shorts and documentaries between them, directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz looked to their own lives for inspiration for their feature-length debut. After meeting Gottsagen at a summer camp, he informed the pair of his dreams of becoming a Hollywood actor. So, much like Tyler’s determination to make Zak’s dream a reality, Nilson and Schwartz started writing a story around Gottsagen, with his thoughts and feelings bleeding into the screenplay. From there, The Peanut Butter Falcon was born, and what a stunning story it is.
Cited as a modern day retelling of the Mark Twain classic Huckleberry Finn, the locations and scenery become a character in themselves, joining Tyler and Zak on their travels. Shot around the backwaters of North Carolina, we’re fully immersed in the swamp water, reeds and soaking rain alongside our main characters, rooting for them all the way. Both intent on escaping their home lives, they take the side roads, fields and waterways to avoid capture, and this isolation only makes their friendship more instant, more intense. Cut with silent flashbacks to Tyler’s relationship with beloved older brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), we’re witnesses to his transition from immature younger sibling to someone with a responsibility for someone else, someone who needs him. This is played out beautifully in the scenes between LaBeouf and Gottsagen – the moments on their raft, floating down a river, are particularly wonderful, as we see Tyler’s ‘tough guy’ exterior crack.
That’s Zak’s power; his open-hearted, honest approach to life opens the eyes of both Tyler and Eleanor, one learning to live less selfishly, the other learning to relax. LaBeouf and Johnson balance each other out, with Gottsagen sitting comfortably between them – our perfectly imperfect family of friends. Watching interviews with the trio post-film only confirm the impact they’ve all made on each other; that Zak’s way of living isn’t just the character, it is Zack, bringing a feeling of sincerity and authenticity to the narrative.
On that, at no point are we made to feel ‘sorry’ for Zak – he acknowledges that he has Down’s syndrome, confronts those who may have a problem with it and moves on. There’s so much more to him than his diagnosis, take it away and the story would still be as heartwarming and affecting in its current form, going to show the power of Nilson and Schwartz’s screenplay.
Gottsagen, with just a single short film appearance under his belt, absolutely shines; as with Nilson and Schwartz, it’s hard to believe this is his first foray into something longer and more substantial. He’s a joy to watch, full of energy, enthusiasm and wide-eyed appreciation of his fellow actors. Johnson, who I naively wrote-off after Fifty Shades of Grey, is the smooth to the boys’ rough, her love and concern for Zak playing across every inch of her face. And then there’s Shia, who seems to be having the best time just playing himself; dirty, messy, smoking, drinking, loving the people around him. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a beautiful film because of everyone involved, but these three are truly stunning together – you’ll leave wanting more. This is one I feel so lucky to have seen, and one I’ll always come back to as a new favourite.