The Peanut Butter Falcon, written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is a story about Zack (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome who lives in a retirement home in North Carolina but dreams of becoming a wrestler, like his idol, Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose videotapes he watches religiously. We meet Zack when he breaks out of the facility, leaving behind the friendly social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), and tries to make it to his hero’s wrestling school down river.
The morning after the daring escape, Zack crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a kid who finds himself in trouble with some unsavory local fishermen. Tyler is somewhat lost and reckless following the death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal), but since his aim is to follow the river down to Florida, he reluctantly agrees to help Zack get to his destination on the way. Meanwhile, Eleanor is tasked with finding Zack.
Genre-wise, the film is a dramedy, given its tendency to play on our heartstrings while maintaining a comedic tone throughout, and the hard-to-hit balance it strikes between the two poles makes it an early candidate for the title of feel-good movie of the year. It’s a road movie, except that it avoids cars and, well, the road, its two protagonists instead choosing to sail the river or walk the beaches and corn fields. It’s your run-of-the-mill buddy comedy, except that one of the buddies has Down Syndrome: this, however, is not some forcibly added twist to the trope, since Zack and Tyler simply have as much natural chemistry onscreen as any other cinematic pair of buddies you can think of.
Most importantly, this film works because it is not a story about a man with Down Syndrome, but a story about a man with the odds stacked against him, trying nonetheless to achieve his goal. This approach ends up humanizing people with Down Syndrome more than any pity-invoking public service announcement ever could. In fact, the film makes this clear at one point, when Tyler tells Eleanor to stop helping Zack with tasks that he, a grown man, can do himself.
Shia LaBeouf as Tyler puts his talent on display here. He uses his charisma and onscreen presence to take charge in certain scenes, but for the most part he plays it cool, letting Zack shine with his equally great comedic timing. In the end, it’s the relationship the two actors developed in the course of the filming that is the true achievement. Add to this a well-written and not overly emphasized romantic element between LaBeouf’s and Johnson’s character, and this film ticks off all the boxes for getting under your skin.
An honorable mention should also go to the soundtrack, which leans into the setting-appropriate genres of bluegrass, folk and country, reducing the low-key indie-pop that usually accompanies these sorts of films to a minimum.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in cinemas on Valentine’s Day, February 14.