The Peanut Butter Falcon is the absolute definition of a feel-good movie. You can walk into this one with a frown on your face and ice in your heart, and by the end credits you’ll find yourself thawed and smiling. It’s not a deep or revolutionary or especially fantastic film, but it has the emotional nutritional content of a jar of peanut butter, and it doesn’t matter how thinly that mess is spread: it’s still gonna taste real damn good.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is an odd-couple road movie through the American South, featuring the unlikely duo of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a man with Down syndrome who has escaped the oppressive confines of the nursing home where he was housed by the state, and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman on the run from his competition (John Hawkes) after Tyler illegally fished in his territory and burned down his dock and supplies. Zak’s escape winds up leading to the bottom of Tyler’s fishing boat, and as Tyler makes his way down to Florida, he decides to bring Zak along to stop along the way at a wrestling school run by Zak’s idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). However, not only is Tyler being pursued, but Zak is as well, by his social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, doing her best as something of a narrative third wheel), and the pair must traverse the backwaters and beaches to find their freedom.
This is a character piece, and thankfully the amazing chemistry between Gottsagen and LaBeouf is incredibly endearing. LaBeouf’s Tyler is a man hardened by the loss of a family member, alone in the world and without hope for the future, but Zak’s fortuitous entry into his life opens the floodgates for grief, remorse, self-forgiveness, and rediscovery of human connection. Zak, meanwhile, is tired of being condescended to his whole life, and he finds in Tyler the rare instance of a friend who will treat him as an equal. LaBeouf has already proven himself capable of playing subtle oddball characters, but Gottsagen proves to be a revelation here, deftly wielding deadpan delivery and goofy antics to maximum comedic effect as Tyler Nilson’s and Michael Schwartz’s nuanced writing and direction give him the room to breathe life into this weirdo obsessed with backyard wrestling.
The film is apparently based on Gottsagen’s own desire to become an actor, and it shows that immense care was taken to be as respectful to people with Down syndrome as possible. It’s very easy to imagine the Oscar bait version of this movie, with Gottsagen infantilized for his differences and treated as pitiable for them, but the film avoids this by focusing on Zak’s personality rather than his Down syndrome; Eleanor’s character arc is built around the realization that Zak is capable of autonomy without condescension, and though Zak faces his share of discrimination and underestimation from those he encounters, this is ultimately the story of a man with a dream testing the limits that have artificially restrained him, finding new family along the way. Down syndrome is an acknowledged facet of who Zak – and by extension, Gottsagen – is, but it doesn’t define his limits, his abilities, or his dreams.
The Peanut Butter Falcon climaxes somewhat abruptly, presumably to avoid having to deal with the realistically messy consequences implied in its final moments, in turn giving the film a happy ending, but avoiding realism for the sake of catharsis feels appropriate in a film about achieving dreams and forging bonds. This isn’t high art or portentous storytelling, but it also doesn’t need to be. Sometimes a film is made just to give you a little bit of hope for humanity, and The Peanut Butter Falcon left me feeling just a bit more optimistic.