‘A beautiful, sentimental journey of self-discovery’ – that’s how I would describe and sum up The Peanut Butter Falcon. Now, that’s a lot of weight for something that has all the cinematic hallmarks of a coming of age film (but with adults at the centre of this romanticised, Southern escapade), but Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s co-directed film deserves the accolade in bringing their passion project to life.
As eloquent as this may sound, Nilson and Schwartz’s film is all about chasing the American Dream. In some ways, it’s a sanitised idealism where it ramps up the Southern niceties and stereotypical characters with no ‘Florida Man’ in sight. But its creditability comes from knowing exactly what type of film it is, and embraces its charming sweetness, right down to the title of the film, no matter how ludicrous it sounds!
As much as the film centres wrestling at its core, the film is not about wrestling – rest assured, you’re not getting a re-hash of Hulk Hogan in No Holds Barred. What it does do is cherry-pick, taking the infectious, soap opera dramatics that every wrestling fan can attest to (with some notable wrestling cameos to reinforce it), and enjoy some of its fantastical adventures that are casually embedded amongst its occasional dish of life lessons, overcoming obstacles and new experiences as if this was a Morgan Freeman narration.
Besides the ‘get busy living or get busy dying’ mantra, that’s all part of the fun and games spirit it emotionally evokes. In a fashion that would make Steve McQueen and his band of Allied friends proud from The Great Escape, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) who has Down syndrome escapes his adult nursing home (because somehow the state felt this was the best place for someone who has a disability and no family), and takes off on a Mark Twain-like adventure to become a wrestler and emulate his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
The beauty of The Peanut Butter Falcon is how it normalises Zak without treating him as a ‘special case’ or a victim that you have to handle with kids gloves. That’s what his nursing home environment does with an authoritarian manner that is high on restriction and low on encouragement. He has hopes and dreams as the next person, and once he’s out of the darkened confines, he’s just part of the team taking life as it comes.
And showing that belief on-screen is vitally important. A few years ago before the ‘woke generation’ climate, the casting of an actual Down syndrome actor would not have been an automatic, or conscious decision. The role would have gone to an able-bodied actor who would have transformed for the part that would garner rave reviews and become a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. But Zack’s performance is full of genuine warmth and enthusiasm, not acknowledged simply because of his disability, but because he has earned the part with a stellar performance. And it goes to show when you give actors the right role and material they can excel at, it all adds to the carefree enjoyment in a simple story about an adult and his wrestling dream. The film passionately adores him as much as Zack passionately adores its ‘fighting back against the world’ premise, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
Dialling up the film’s charm is Shia LeBeouf. After a career growing up in the media spotlight with the blockbuster highs and personal lows, you immediately sense he’s turned a major cornerstone with this performance. LeBeouf has always been talented – his roles in Lawless and American Honey are evident of that. But if you want a significant reminder of his credentials, then look no further.
You admire at how comfortable he is playing Tyler – less Witwicky from Transformers and the Hollywood limelight, to a person with ample, character-driven sustenance to delve into his character’s state of mind and experience. As a mentor, protector and motivator for Zak who he picks up on his travels, with each passing moment the film shares with its characters (as if life mirrored art and vice versa), LeBeouf empathetically takes the film’s premise to heart.
Not to be left behind in this exploration is Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor. Assigned to find the nursing home escapee, she finds herself swept up in their adventure which beautifully adds to the on-screen chemistry.
However, it’s not completely faultless. John Hawkes plays your typical ‘bad guy’ who’s occasionally thrown into the mix to remind you of the stakes when you just want to enjoy the camaraderie between Tyler, Zak and Eleanor. Jon Bernthal must have received the easiest paycheque he’s likely to receive as he’s seen but not heard, used as an emotional flashback for Tyler’s story. And what can only be explained as a ‘choose your adventure’ moment, the film is guilty of not knowing how to end in a jarring few minutes that takes you out of the moment.
But those moments are not enough to completely derail what The Peanut Butter Falcon ultimately achieves. It does suffer from predictability, but in this charming, feelgood escapade for the ages, it does enough to paint over the cracks. And if you’ve engaged enough with the story, you may just leave with a smile on your face.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details.