“You need a name.
There’s a remarkable moment in The Peanut Butter Falcon that stands out as one of the best, more honest exchanges of dialogue I’ve heard this year, and one that will only feel full once you get to know the folks involved; I’ll recount it later on. For now you should come to know Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a special needs guy on the run and a young man determined to escape the ill-suited retirement home where he was placed. He’s carefully looked after by the attentive and affectionate Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). In a clever scene reminiscent of a lighter One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Zak breaks out with the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), only to become an inadvertent stowaway on the cold, calloused, visibly beaten Tyler’s (Shia LaBeouf) rickety boat. It’s a beautiful collision of an open individual who’s desperately in need of friendship and another who initially and stubbornly refuses to reciprocate affection. Love wins out, as it should.
Dirtied and distraught and running from his tortured past while trying to evade the ruthless boatyard men he intentionally wronged, Tyler’s surprised to find Zak, a curious castaway, aboard the fishing boat dressed only in his skivvies. Duncan (John Hawkes) and his tattooed goon Ratboy (Yelawolf) are hot on Tyler’s tail, hoping with gritted teeth that they can persuade Tyler into settling his debts by means of brute force. He can’t, and so he flees, escapes, and begrudgingly agrees to help Zak make his way to a wrestling camp in Florida that he saw on an old VHS tape. After all, it’s on Tyler’s way.
The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t shy away from the obvious influence that Mark Twain has on its story; in fact, the film admits to the inspiration, heavily leaning into the kind of humor and the social critiques Twain himself offered up in his most popular and wandering works. Because of how recognizable that sense of Americana comes across, co-writers / directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz don’t really have to do too much. They wrote a great tale about involuntary friendship and makeshift family, and the rest is up to the actors to take direction and make the moments their own. Dakota Johnson shows understanding, Shia LaBeouf exudes vulnerability, and the newcomer Zack Gottsagen reminds us how much greater the world might be if only we all were able to greet new friends with wide open arms no matter the circumstance. Together they share authentic chemistry and an intimate balance that feels real because it seems to seriously be real. That’s rare in movies nowadays.
The relentlessly chasing bad guys somewhat dilute the film’s warmth without adding any rich darkness, and the third act – while uplifting as Zak meets his idol The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) – lays the sentiment on a bit too thick for my liking. But that seems to part of the film’s sole reason for existing in the first place, which is why I thought a single exchange of dialogue encapsulated the soul of the entire picture. Zak, pestering a frustrated Tyler, stops in his tracks and says, “I want you to know about me. I am a down syndrome person.” Tyler turns backs and replies, “I don’t really give a shit.” The words might sound severe, yet I found them to be incredibly moving. Tyler sees Zak as a person and refuses to treat him any differently, and that just so happens to be the lens through which Zak wants to be seen. They understand each other. And that’s why The Peanut Butter Falcon ends up being an enriching bowl of chicken soup for the soul that sticks to your ribs. There’s nothing down about it.
“Friends are the family you choose.”
Rating: 4 out of 5