There is something quintessentially optimistic about the rolling of a river and the drift of the sea. It represents endless possibility, which could be argued is a distinctly American trait. Author Samuel Clemens (under a certain nom de plume) tapped into that with his transcendentalist novel that reached for sunny aspirations, even while exposing the hypocritical rot beneath. I imagine he’d get a kick out of The Peanut Butter Falcon too, an infinitely sweet indie that wears its Mark Twain inspiration on its sleeve just as readily as it does the cardboard box that makes up its wrestling gear.
Assuredly a Southern tall tale where every character is graced with a whisper of the mythic, even when it’s only in their own minds, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a sunbaked daydream from directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz that channels Huckleberry Finn in a modern context. Just because someone is “disabled” or “special needs” does not mean they do not have dreams, nor that they cannot be reached on a riverside raft floating into the horizon with a good buddy by their side.
Focused on a young lad named Zak (Zack Gottsagen), The Peanut Butter Falcon finds him in an unhappy situation. Born with Down syndrome, and now with his parents gone, Zak’s been abandoned by the state of North Carolina in a retirement home where the only people who care about him are a rascally old-timer (Bruce Dern) and a well-meaning, overworked caretaker named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Eleanor has Zak’s best interests at heart but fails to see how a man who is almost 21 shouldn’t be left to wither in this institution. So with the help of Dern, Zak organizes an escape where he can set off to pursue his mission of becoming a professional wrestler… like the one he sees on TV via old VHS tapes promoting the Salt Water Redneck’s (Thomas Haden Church) wrasslin’ school.
This brings Zak into direct conflict and then alliance with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a true blue Southern good ol’ boy who has pissed off the wrong people (embodied by a scary John Hawkes) and is attempting to make his way to Florida on a raft down the Cape Fear River and then past the Outer Banks. At first, he wants nothing to do with the curious dude running around in his underwear, but after Zak stows away on Tyler’s raft, he reluctantly agrees to take Zak to the Salt Water Redneck’s school by way of the coast. Along the journey, Tyler teaches a man to fish, both literally and figuratively. Their unlikely friendship eventually finds room for Eleanor, who is on the search for Zak, yet is soon cast away on the raft due to serendipitous developments.
There is much buzz around LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Beneath a scruffy beard and a long faded baseball cap, you can practically smell the tobacco and seawater drifting from his shirt. It is one of several unrecognizable performances LaBeouf is turning in this year, and one that authentically captures the energy of a man who doesn’t care about the unimportant things and makes a pretty good show of pretending he misses the crucial bits too. Be it amiably helping Zak come up with a wrestler name (fortuitously over the only food Tyler can afford, which is a jar of peanut butter) or having the country chutzpah to flirt with Eleanor in a convenience store while wearing his bed as a backpack, there is an authentically homespun charm about his presence.
However, the movie is really a two-hander where Tyler makes for an immediately affable big brother to Zak. Obviously pulling from his own life, Gottsagen jives well with the current set by the story and LaBeouf’s energy while making his hero sincerely heroic, even as he puts pieces of a cardboard box on for his wrestling alter-ego. It is Gottsagen’s ability to carry the movie as the straight leading man that allows its sentiment to land true and avoid sap.
Eventually joined by Eleanor—perhaps a bit like if Tom Sawyer boarded Huck and Jim’s vessel—the trio’s breezy chemistry anchor a film happy to drift through vignettes and side characters who add just as much texture to the movie as the gauzy sunset shots of waves drenching the sand and Zak diving in the water. Church is a particularly welcome sight as Clint, a washed up never-was who finds good reason to don the wrestling makeup one last time.
Nilson and Schwartz present all of these characters and their world witha deft touch that follows in the footsteps of many an indie dramedy. But it is the Southern affectation that elevates Peanut Butter Falcon above similar material, giving their picture the endearing quality of a storybook read aloud before bed. The story being told isn’t a fantasy though; it’s a confirmation of finding basic humanity in seemingly hopeless situations, and in characters whose oil and water can sometimes blend as easily as peanut butter and… well, salt water. There’s no need worrying about jam, of any kind, on a ride this smooth.