An unforgettable adventure through America's Deep South
Set in the backblocks of rural North Carolina, The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of a down on his luck fisherman who comes across a young man with Down syndrome. The two men are both on the run (for different reasons) but soon form an unlikely bond as they travel along the coast.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man living with Down syndrome who has been placed in a residential old-age home. Because of earlier escape attempts (abetted by the oldies in the home), Zak has been labelled a flight risk by his carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). But that doesn't stop Zak: one night he shimmies out his window and flees into the night, wearing nothing but his undies.
Zak is a huge wrestling fan and his intended destination is a wrestling school run by a performer called The Saltwater Redneck (played by Thomas Haden Church). Zak's trip seems futile (he has no shoes on after all) until he stumbles upon Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). Tyler's a fisherman and slacker who's also clearing out after a run-in with some other roughneck fishermen. Tyler's plan is to get to Florida - but his plans are as vague and problematic as Zak's (Tyler has a shotgun, but no money).
Initially resistant to Zak's overtures that they become friends, Tyler eventually gives in and resolves to take Zak to visit The Saltwater Redneck's wrestling school. The duo set out into the countryside - swimming across rivers, drinking whisky, hiking through the woods, firing Tyler's shotgun and sleeping under the stars. But their idyll is on borrowed time. Eleanor from the old-age home (who is blamed for Zak's escape) hits the road to retrieve her patient. Tyler's aggrieved fishermen enemies are also not letting him off so easily, and begin a furious pursuit.
With The Peanut Butter Falcon, filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have created a strange and imaginative tale that is frequently delightful. There are many times when the whole thing could have devolved into cheap sentimentality, but the film resists this.
Zak (played brilliantly by newcomer Zack Gottsagen) is portrayed as a man who is strong and kind and very funny, and who also happens to have Down syndrome. He is not necessarily presented as heroic; he just has hopes and fears like all of us do. The other characters are similarly well-drawn. LaBeouf and Johnson are especially enjoyable as redneck Tyler encounters sweet and sophisticated Eleanor. Even Thomas Haden Church playing a completely over the top wrestler (and then a washed-up former wrestler) offers memorable moments.
The setting also steals the limelight. Zak and Tyler's trek sees them traverse lush farmland, deserted beaches and syrup-coloured rivers. The cinematography is rich and vivid - by the end, you can almost taste the salty air of the coast.
The film does have a few plausibility gaps, and towards the very end things get a little loopy, more than some will find comfortable. But it's nitpicking because Zak and Tyler's strange and memorable journey is so entirely pleasant. You're guaranteed to come away with a smile on your face.