A young man with Down Syndrome resists society’s patronizing approach to his life and possibilities, by escaping from a nursing home and going on a journey with a headstrong, rebellious ally.
A boy travels south on a raft with a runaway slave—that’s Huckleberry Finn. A new film takes that brief plot description as a template, while changing the characters, the time, the themes, and just about everything else, yet retaining a certain timeless quality. This film has a weird title: The Peanut Butter Falcon.
In this case, the time is the present, and the runaway is a young man with Down Syndrome named Zak, abandoned by whatever family he once had, and placed, for lack of a better option, in a residential nursing home in North Carolina. Despite the kindness of a young employee named Eleanor, Zak knows he doesn’t belong there and wants to be free. His dream is to go to a school for professional wrestling he has seen on a video. One night he escapes the home in his underwear, runs to some nearby docks on the shore, and hides under a tarp in a fishing boat. Along comes a scrappy young fisherman named Tyler, who was beaten up for stealing another guy’s crabbing pots, and then retaliated by setting the guy’s gear on fire. He flees in the boat, with his enemies in pursuit, only later discovering that there’s a stowaway on board.
At first glance, it would seem that the main point of interest here is that the central character has Down Syndrome. And Zak’s journey does reflect the theme of the underdog, in this case a person with a disability, seeking to fulfill the kind of dreams anyone might have. A movie with such themes can succumb to a few common flaws—but this one doesn’t. There’s no self-pity or tear jerking, no special pleading, no discussion of what Down Syndrome is. There is sentimentality, but not so much as to go over the edge into bathos. And the credit for this goes to the screenplay by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, and especially to the performance of Zack Gottsagen as Zak. The portrayal is naturalistic in the best sense—Zak is a guy in his twenties with a good personality, some limitations, including stubbornness, and not for a second do you disbelieve in this character. He’s a complex, rounded human being.
Tyler, the troubled renegade who initially pushes Zak away, then takes him on as a friend, is played by Shia LaBeouf I’ve seen some mediocre work from LaBeouf in the past—here he is very appealing, and completely at home in his character: a confident, bordering on arrogant, country boy. Most of the film is a road movie, with LaBeouf and Gottsagen bonding along the way. The film creates plenty of diverting incidents to test them as they travel south through the swampy interior of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Eleanor, the nursing home employee, is played by Dakota Johnson. She’s assigned to find Zak and bring him home, in order to avoid bad publicity. Eventually she catches up with the traveling duo, and gradually, after first dismissing Tyler as untrustworthy, develops a rapport with him which, surprisingly, is convincing. So good work from her as well. The plot goes to a few places that verge on the contrived, but I use the word “verge” because even the familiar aspects of the story don’t ruin the movie’s sweet, earthy atmosphere, and the palpable affection of the characters.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (you’ll understand the title once you see the film) listed as its director, unless I’m mistaken, Lucky Treehouse. I thought, “Who the heck is that?” Turns out it’s the name of a film collective in California to which the actual directors, the same guys who wrote the film, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, belong. They’ve pulled off a minor miracle here—a small film with a big heart that doesn’t try to overplay its hand. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a winner.