The Peanut Butter Falcon charms as a Huck Finn riff
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a delightful film, but one that is not without its difficulties. In telling the story about a young man with Down syndrome, the film is a vessel through which representation is given to a marginalized population, but in keeping the plot/thematics simple, the film could potentially be viewed as taking an irresponsible stance toward this specific disability.
Perhaps I am digging too deep, but as this charming story plods along (and “plod” is the correct nomenclature for the relaxed pace), I couldn’t help but feel like there were some missed opportunities. Yet at the same time, this simplistic storytelling approach is refreshing in its own right. The basic gist is this: Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome and no family to speak of. He lives in a elderly rest home under the care of his nurse Eleanor (Dakotah Johnson). Zak has a bit of wanderlust which has been exacerbated by a video tape that highlights the career of his favorite wrestler, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). According to the tape, The Salt Water Redneck has a wrestling school that is currently accepting applicants. With the help of his elderly roommate (Bruce Dern), Zak manages to escape his home in the hopes of reaching said school. His path fortuitously(?) crosses with that of Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a recently unemployed fisherman currently on the run from some dangerous people who he has recently pissed off.
What follows is pretty simple. The two men form an initially salty relationship which softens as they get to know one another, often times finding themselves in challenging circumstances brought forth by the people and the terrain of the Outer Banks. It’s telling that the characters (who eventually find themselves cruising downriver on a janky homemade raft) frequently reference Mark Twain. The Peanut Butter Falcon is 100% trying to be a riff on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At this it certainly succeeds, even if it does not do much with the conceit. This very basic stuff, and it hits just about every plot beat you could reasonably expect. The stakes are never too high, and conflict rarely sticks around for longer than a few minutes. For the most part, this light and basic approach is a good idea. Whether this is due to the limitations of having a disabled leading man or to the unwillingness of the filmmakers to want to do anything but bring us delight is irrelevant. Had this been any heavier, it probably would have been too much.
All said, the aforementioned missed opportunities really sting. While I’d love to take the position that maybe what everyone needs is a little bit of love, kindness, and some personal agency, there are other factors to consider. Especially when it involves well-studied medical conditions. For example, there’s a scene where Eleanor, after having caught up with Zak and Tyler, tells Zak that it’s time to take his medicine. Tyler tells Zak that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Naturally, Zak refuses his medication and that is that. While the film correctly points out that Eleanor’s constant fawning over Zak certainly damages him by passively framing him as an other, it still lands in murky water regarding the safeguards in place to keep vulnerable members of our society healthy. It’s not a dealbreaker for me (it’s a lovely movie), but this feels like a pretty glaring oversight — one which could be corrected with just a few small passes of the pen.
Once I fell into step with the film’s good intentions and its uneven plot rhythms, it became easy to enjoy. Gottsagen embraces his leading man role in a charming and lovely way. He gives a big, heartfelt performance that is so full of life that it’s hard not to want the absolute best for him at every turn. He’s a commanding, joyous presence, and all of his emotional beats land. The same can be said for Shia LaBeouf, and actor that many have dismissed as a weirdo while forgetting that he is undoubtedly one of the most engaging and talented people working today. His Tyler is neither good nor bad, and its a duality he’s struggling with in every frame. Sometimes we like him, sometimes not, and he’s with us on that every step of the way. LaBeouf and Gottsagen have wonderful chemistry together. So much so that it alone helps the film skate past its issues.
Dakotah Johnson is wonderful, as always, bringing life to a character whose only function seems to be to roll over and die in the face of adversity. It’s a shame that Eleanor is so underwritten, because a slight beefing up of her character could fix so many of the film’s weaknesses. If Eleanor weren’t such a pushover, many of the ethical issues I had with the script would have been addressed without losing the film’s essential breezy tone.
At the end of the day, the charm is real, and The Peanut Butter Falcon is absolutely worth your time, warts and all. While its refusal to contend with difficult material is a problem, its endorsement of unconditional love, and agency for those who are often denied it by well-meaning colleagues is worth celebrating. The whole thing is just so damn sweet that I couldn’t help but feel uplifted. Add to that a handful of genuine belly laughs and you’ve got yourself a winner.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in Philly theaters today.