by Daniel O’Connell As I have stated in past reviews, August through September is usually seen as a dumping ground for movies that studios don’t know what to do with. Thus, the quality varies significantly with movies that are released during this time. However, one of these films, The Peanut Butter Falcon, has proven to be a pleasant surprise. Directed by first-time directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the film is a sweet and funny modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn. The film follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who lives in a nursing home. Zak’s hero is a professional wrestler known as the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and he dreams of becoming a wrestler like him. To achieve this dream, Zak runs away to attend the Redneck’s wrestling school, while Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), an employee at Zak’s nursing home, is tasked with tracking him down. On the way, Zak runs into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck crab trapper, who is on the run from trouble. Tyler becomes Zak’s unlikely friend and coach as the two make their way down the Carolina Outer Banks. Together, Tyler helps Zak achieve his dream as a wrestler named, “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
Likeable, well-acted charactersOne of this movie’s biggest strengths is its cast, particularly when it comes to the lead actors, Gottsagen and LaBeouf. Gottsagen, like his character, has Down syndrome, and does a great job in his performance as Zak. His personality, along with his perseverance in pursuing his dream, makes him likable and endearing as a lead. LaBeouf, on the other hand, gives one of his best performances to date as Tyler, the Jim to Zak’s Huckleberry Finn. He’s almost unrecognizable, playing a rough-around-the-edges trapper who’s still reeling from the death of his older brother Mark (Jon Bernthal). The friendship between Zak and Tyler is the main highlight of the film, as Tyler becomes Zak’s first real friend and encourages him in achieving his dream. This is especially highlighted in a montage where Tyler trains Zak by having him push hay bales, teaches him how to shoot a shotgun, and the two eat watermelon together. The rest of the cast does a fantastic job as well. Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor works well as a straight man to both Zak and Tyler, initially going out to retrieve Zak, but eventually joining the pair on their voyage. John Hawkes’ Duncan, a trapper that’s out for Tyler’s head, brings a level of creepy menace. His thin, wiry build and creepy mustache enhances the menace. And while Thomas Haden Church has a limited amount of screen time as the Salt Water Redneck, he does give a likable performance as the former wrestler who comes out of retirement to help Zak.
A moving homage to the works of Mark TwainMaking a film about a disabled character going out to pursue their dream can be difficult. When handled poorly, it can result in sappy, overly-sentimental, sometimes offensive tripe that would be found on the Lifetime network. However, The Peanut Butter Falcon avoids these pitfalls simply by being honest and humble in how it tells its story. As stated earlier, the film is more or less a modern retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (with Tyler at one point bringing up Mark Twain in a conversation). The parallels with Huckleberry Finn are further highlighted when Zak and Tyler create their own makeshift raft to sail down the rivers of the Outer Banks. And speaking of the Outer Banks, the film provides great visuals of this part of the Carolinas. Director Nilson grew up in the fishing communities of the Outer Banks and uses his experiences in portraying the area. While not portrayed as glamorous, the film gives the area a simple, rustic charm that makes one want to go out and explore these backwater areas. Another strength of the movie is its soundtrack. Put together by Zach Dawes and Johnathan Sadoff, it brings together an enjoyable mix of bluegrass and folk songs that are fantastic to listen to and even add to the old-timey, backwater atmosphere of the film. While I do have plenty of praise for the movie, there is one thing in particular that bothered me; the film has a lack of conclusion in some aspects. There are a few significant plot points that are left hanging, and some more closure with them would sit a lot better with me; however, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment and love for this movie.
Featured Image: IMDb Images: IMDb, Roger Ebert