Shia LaBeouf’s transition from studio star to indie darling (American Honey, Man Down, Charlie Countryman) has been a gradual and creatively gratifying one. We’ve witnessed the Transformers and Holes star grow from a boy to a man, and with The Peanut Butter Falcon we see both of those stages intertwined in his most likable (and beautifully rendered) performance to date.
The sublime beauty behind The Peanut Butter Falcon is hard to put into words, but for one this film’s creative success doesn’t hinge on Shia LaBeouf’s performance. It centers on a friendship that grows from a raft expedition from the North Carolina waterways to the coast of Florida. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz penned their story after Nilson met lead actor Zack Gottsagen at a camp for actors with disabilities. Gottsagen’s self-confidence and charisma immediately captivated Nilson, and that indomitable and infectious spirit, along with LaBeouf’s open hearted performance, powers the narrative.
With his parents gone, Zak (Gottsagen) is a ward of the state, forced to live in a nursing home with a volunteer named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) as his best buddies. Carl, ever so patient, is witness to Zak’s love for The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a wrestler who supposedly owns a wrestling school in the Sunshine State. Zak incessantly plays a VHS tape with The Salt Water Redneck, and he refuses to be shackled in his confining environment. With the help of Carl, a shirtless Zak breaks out to embark on a life changing road trip.
Timing is everything, and financially strapped Tyler (LaBeouf) actually steals crabs from Duncan (John Hawkes), a local fisherman who doesn’t mind resorting to violence as a way of keeping his business secure. Still reeling over his brother’s (Jon Bernthal) passing, Tyler often thinks without evaluating the consequences, and a costly stunt he pulls on Duncan places him in immediate danger.
Zak ends up a stowaway on Tyler’s boat, and although their friendship doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye, Tyler needs a friend in these dire times. Though brimming with unwavering moxie, Zak also needs a captain to navigate this Mark Twain-esque adventure. For now, they are the perfect traveling companions.
An understandably worried Eleanor goes on the trail to find Zak, but once she completes her mission, she becomes absolutely invested in Zak’s ultimate dream, and now it’s three for the road to Florida.
Nilson and Schwartz, along with cinematographer Nigel Bluck, bring an evocative and rich visual depth to the proceedings, and this attention to detail is evident in almost every layer of the film. The friendship among Johnson, LaBeouf, and Gottsagen feel absolutely real, and this believability should immediately win over even the most jaded of viewers.
LaBeouf’s talent has been evident from an early age, and seeing him grow as an actor, while retaining an unwavering vulnerability is fascinating to watch on screen. The actor, like all of us, has witnessed his share of pain and troubles in his life, and one would assume those wounds are subtly on display in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
That being said, the filmmakers keep all hands on deck by simply focusing on the story. What could have been mawkish and heavy handed coming of age tale ends up being something completely different. Zak may have Down syndrome, but he is not defined by his condition. He’s a passionate wrestler and seeker through and through, and with friends like Tyler and Eleanor, he will probably achieve his goals in a prompter fashion than the many a folk (including this here reviewer).
The film’s ending may be a bit too tidy for my tastes, but that’s just a nitpick. If you’re looking to be swept away by a charming and immersive tale, then you won’t have to travel too far.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Peanut Butter Falcon, which also stars legendary wrestlers Jake Roberts and Mick Foley, opens in theaters August 9. I also discuss/review the film on the latest episode of CinemAddicts, a movie podcast I co-host with Anderson Cowan (review starts at 39:12).