Release: Friday, August 23, 2019
Written by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz
Directed by: Tyler Nilson; Michael Schwartz
Starring: Shia LaBeouf; Zack Gottsagen; Dakota Johnson; John Hawkes; Thomas Haden Church; Bruce Dern; Jon Bernthal
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz make their narrative feature début with what could be the year’s most Googled movie title, The Peanut Butter Falcon. Previously known for their short films and documentaries, the duo are now behind this year’s biggest crowd-pleaser, a breezily entertaining, stunningly authentic slice of southern living that updates classic Mark Twain for a 2019 audience, one in desperate need of a feel-good moment.
As an evocation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the narrative adheres to a predictable formula, following a pair of runaways who form an unexpected bond in the pursuit of a better future all while being pursued by their own troubled pasts. Shia LaBeouf plays the scraggly Tyler, the ‘Tom Sawyer’ archetype, on the run after having stolen some crab pots from a rivaling crabber (John Hawkes) and his Yelawolf crony, while newcomer Zack Gottsagen, a 34-year-old actor with Down syndrome, gives us an unforgettable ‘Huck Finn’ in the form of Zak — uh, that’s without the ‘c’ I guess. An escapee of the nursing home to which the state of North Carolina has banished him, his newfound independence becomes an increasing concern for his caretaker, Eleanor (a wonderful Dakota Johnson).
After literally setting fire to the competition, for Tyler the goal is simply to get out of dodge and move to a small fishing town in Florida where he can get a new start. That mission gets more complicated when he finds a stowaway on the same johnboat he’s planning to commandeer — a young man, wide-eyed and slathered in what appears to be jelly, barely clinging to his underwear. Zak declares he’s on his own mission to track down the whereabouts of his wrestling idol, The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who he’s watched on VHS so many times his former roommate (Bruce Dern) knows all the moves himself.
Where The Peanut Butter Falcon really distinguishes itself is in the acting department, particularly in the leading duo — and eventual trio — whose natural chemistry makes it no secret as to what the culture behind the scenes was like. According to the filmmakers this was quite an atypical film shoot; everyone got to know each other intimately. Coming to work meant being part of a family wherein cast and crew spent “morning, noon and night” together, swimming, grilling out, getting into rap battles — basically doing the things Adam Sandler does every year, except the difference is a quality product. (And it’s also hard to envision a Happy Madison production regularly wrapping in a big, group hug — something mandated, apparently, by the outwardly affectionate Gottsagen.)
It is almost impossible not to look at The Peanut Butter Falcon as a redemption story for the seemingly perennially embattled LaBeouf, who really seems motivated to put the distractions behind him here as he filters the turbulence of the last several years through the foibles of Tyler. However it is Gottsagen who is the movie’s heart and soul. His character’s arc is inspired by the true (and truly feel-good) story that has been his own journey to the big screen. The aspiring movie star was discovered by Nilson and Schwartz a few years ago by way of a short film produced at an acting camp for those with and without disabilities. When they finally met, the directors were candid about his chances of making it in an industry where those with Down syndrome — indeed, a wide range of physical and mental development problems — are among the most marginalized. Entirely unfazed, Gottsagen compelled what would become his future bosses and creative partners to be those first few people to “make it happen.”
What ended up happening is one of the year’s warmest and most entertaining movies. What began life as a 10-minute short (available on YouTube as The Moped Diaries) evolved into one big mama hug of a full-length feature film, one that couches the universality of its themes — ostracism, self-worth, independence and friendship/family — within the filmmakers’ distinct sense of regionalism (it helps Nilson is actually from North Carolina). The movie is also shot beautifully and with some degree of poignancy, Nigel Bluck’s photography capturing both the geographic character and economic stagnation that explains the likes of Hawkes’ desperate Duncan, a man who, like everyone else, is just trying to live life but is really struggling.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is what you would describe as an original property — it’s not a direct adaptation of an IP or a sequel of any kind — but of course it’s not wholly original. Nilson and Schwartz are drawing from the deepest parts of the well of American literature. Importantly this modern incarnation is kept rooted in southern soil (though we exchange Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi for the tributaries and barrier reefs of the Outer Banks) and it retains many of the symbols native to the source material while telling its own story with unique and memorable characters. With a renewed spirit — and an intensely infectious one at that, thanks to the fantastic performances — The Peanut Butter Falcon softens Mark Twain without sacrificing the grit and pain that was so pronounced in his writing, the film managing not only to justify itself but to make what’s old not necessarily feel new but certainly revitalized and just an absolute joy to sit through once again.
Moral of the Story: The Peanut Butter Falcon makes it fun to float the river with a trio of sincere, heartfelt performances, and easy to set aside any preconceived notions we might have of some of the cast. Plus, wrestling fans are sure to get a kick out of a couple of well-placed cameos.
Running Time: 98 mins.
Quoted: “What’s Rule Number One?”
“. . . Party!”
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