“Friends are the family we choose.” That simple aphorism, offered by a character played by Bruce Dern, perfectly encapsulates the central theme of South By Southwest’s Audience Award-winning indie film, The Peanut Butter Falcon. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmakers Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, it was brought to fruition by the indie hit-makers that produced Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens with a failed jailbreak of sorts, as Zak, a person with Down syndrome played by Zack Gottsagen, attempts an escape from a Georgia nursing home. At a nearby estuary we’re introduced to Tyler, played by Shia LaBeouf, who’s stealing crabs from traps that don’t belong to him. Both Zak and Tyler suffer the consequences of their actions. Bars are installed in the window of Zak’s bedroom after he’s labeled a flight risk by an emotionally invested but overprotective caregiver named Eleanor, portrayed by Dakota Johnson. Tyler loses his job and gets punched out by the crab trap’s owners.
It’s soon revealed that Zak wants to run away to learn how to wrestle from his hero, The Salt Water Redneck, and Tyler has been lashing out against the people who acquired the crabbing license forfeited by his recently deceased brother. Zak eventually escapes with Eleanor in hot pursuit, while Tyler ends up running for his life after destroying twelve thousand dollars worth of crabbing equipment. When their inevitable crossing of paths occurs, Tyler decides to help Zack complete his quest to find The Salt Water Redneck. It’s The Wizard of Oz by way of Mark Twain.
Having an actor with Down syndrome playing one of the leads is obviously a risky endeavor. What could have easily become cringe-worthy or exploitative is neither. But because Zack Gottsagen is somewhat limited as an actor, the filmmakers make wise use of visual metaphors and costume design to accentuate his character arc. His successful escape is highly suggestive of rebirth; his baby-proportioned body, greased up with lubricant, slides through a vaginal-shaped hole between the bars of his bedroom window and plops to the ground like a newborn, wearing nothing more than his diaper-looking tidy whities. As his adventure with Tyler progresses, and he learns how to define himself not by what he can’t do, but what he can, he gradually acquires a black T-shirt, a pair of camouflage pants and, eventually, some white rubber boots. By the time he’s fully clothed again, he looks like a new man – a wrestler, in fact.
The most dramatic moments stem from the predicaments Tyler creates for himself, and Shia LaBeouf shines as the angst-ridden antihero. He fully inhabits the character of Tyler, handling crab nets like a pro – the byproduct of crabbing for an entire month prior to filming. Tyler’s redemption flows from his heart as his affection for Zak grows. He sees in him what others are missing, and soon develops into a big-brother/father-figure hybrid.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a heartwarming story that never becomes overly saccharine, and it’s told in a tight one hour and thirty-seven minutes. The acting is across the board superb, and a fantastic supporting cast, including Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes, bolsters the three principle performances. So if you’re wrestling with the idea of checking out The Peanut Butter Falcon, take my advice, and don’t hesitate.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.