The Peanut Butter Falcon infuses its message of autonomy and risk-taking with a sense of magic – as Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who escapes his dreary, constricting care home for freedom and adventure, drifts on a raft through the stultifyingly hot river-ways of the American South with new friend Tyler and old friend Eleanor.
And rather than leave its characters enervated and exhausted, instead it raises the idea that anything is possible.
Feel-good without being saccharine, warm without being cloying, Peanut Butter Falcon gently subverts syrupy tropes and avoids the “earnest indie” tag, as Zak gets to experience life on his terms for the first time. It’s also hilarious, helped by a terrific performance from Zack Gottsagen as Zak.
Zak is a seasoned escapee. With care home volunteer Eleanor (a warm Dakota Johnson) marking him down as a “flight risk”, it falls to his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) to help get Zak out of his prison, resulting in a soap-covered Zak squeezing through window bars before heading off into the night, clad only in his white underpants.
His destination is a wrestling school further south run by his hero the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose ancient videos have entertained Zak and Carl for years.
The first person he meets is Tyler (Shia LaBoeuf) after hiding out in his boat. Tyler is a fisherman at war with the people around him and himself – his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, in another tiny role) is dead, and he’s reduced to stealing shellfish from other men’s pots out on the river.
One impulsive, stupid action by Tyler – setting fire to local fishermen Duncan and Ratboy’s pots and nets on the small quayside – lead to a chase across the waterways and inlets, with Zak hiding under a tarpaulin. Despite later trying to leave him behind, after Tyler witnesses a kid bullying non-swimmer Zack into jumping into water he agrees to take the young man safely to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school before he travels on to Florida alone for a new start.
Everything is exciting for Zak, especially when it’s also dangerous, and his love of freedom is infectious – even when he’s being pulled across a river on inflated plastic bags and there’s a shrimp boat approaching at top speed.
The people they meet along the way are colourful and larger than life but they still fit perfectly into Zak’s story; from the gun-toting, god-fearing Blind Jasper John to the Salt Water Redneck’s mate Sam (real-life wrestler Jake Roberts, excellent) who is determined that Zak will get to wrestle in the ring at least once.
The relationship that develops between Tyler and Zak is funny and touching, but it also feels realistic. Both men want to be a hero; neither man can’t do it entirely on his own. Tyler is eminently practical at pushing Zak towards his dreams (watching them practice fighting while wearing hollowed-out watermelons on their heads is a delight), without really thinking through where Zak might need a little more support while he’s getting used to his newly-won freedom.
It feels like this is the first time Tyler has been able to feel superior to anyone, so when Eleanor – hemmed in by rules and paperwork – finally catches up with the two of them, he pushes it for all it’s worth. Still, Tyler’s reasoning certainly gains nuance as he travels with Zak; his speech to Eleanor that people who politely refuse to let Zak experience life aren’t any better that the bullies who call him retarded is a belter.
This is a road and raft movie that avoids roads, moving from forest tracks and paths through seven foot high corn to the river itself, the three of them sailing slowly south.
There are certainly some frequently used ideas (yes Zak gets drunk for the first time!) but the groundedness of the performances from all three leads mean it has a sense of realism (we’ve all been drunk the first time, and it’s usually the best time).
LaBoeuf is perfectly layered as a guy with a lot of faults; he’s creepy in the gas station shop where he first meets Eleanor, and he finally has to grow up now his brother is no longer around to protect him (and cope with the circumstances of Mark’s death).
Changes in tone are handled impressively well by writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz; that scene in the gas station starts off as a hilarious two-hander between Tyler and the attendant in the shop, shifting key as Eleanor arrives and Tyler enjoys the power he has over her (Zak is hiding outside in the bushes while she searches for him).
It’s an impressive feature debut from Zack Gottsagen too. Nilson and Schwartz wrote the script specifically for him, and he entirely holds his own with a funny and open performance that never feels forced or stagey.
With Zak’s voice so central in Peanut Butter Falcon, the film is a clear call to society to improve its paternalistic attitude to people with cognitive disabilities. That sensibility continues with the directors’ treatment of other characters in the movie, always circumventing stereotypes. Even the violence of Duncan and Ratboy is put in context – men trying to scratch a living fishing who see all their income go up in smoke after Tyler sets fire to their nets and pots.
The elderly residents of the care home where Zak and Carl reside are never portrayed negatively as they try to help the young man live his life his way; Carl has a gleefully childlike side but isn’t infantilised. His job is to get Zak out safely and onto the open road, and he uses his skills from his working life working as an engineer to do that – and he has no qualms about Zak, clad only in his large white underpants, heading off into the dark with no money.
Life is an adventure and when you’ve been cooped up as long as they have, freedom outweighs the risks.
Peanut Butter Falcon is out in UK cinemas now. Read my interviews with the writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz.
Watch the trailer for The Peanut Butter Falcon, and scroll down for clips and images from the film:
The Peanut Butter Falcon featurette:
FILM CLIP – Kidnapping:
FILM CLIP – It’s not party: