A movie with a title as ridiculous as The Peanut Butter Falcon puts pressure on itself to earn the self-assured sense of absurdity it touts, and—with the compass of a stellar cast—Falcon finds its way and strikes gold in the process. And it must, because the logistics of the film don’t stand a chance under scrutiny. This isn’t a film for portentous critical thinkers; rather, it’s for those seeking the cozy warmth of genuine human connection supported by an impressive emotional density and sharp comedic sensibility.
The modern Twain-esque folk tale follows Zak (newcomer Zack Gottsagen), a man with Down syndrome who’s slipped through the cracks of government programs only to end up in a senior nursing home he doesn’t belong in, and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled, grungy, grimy fisherman (channeling major sad Ben Affleck energy) who spends more time remembering his dead brother (Jon Bernthal) and looting his neighbors’ haul than he does catching his own crabs. Naturally, his fellow crabbers don’t appreciate it, and all it takes is one ass-whooping from Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf) for Tyler to double down on his poor decision-making and light the dock ablaze. With the help of his roommate Carl (an enthusiastic Bruce Dern), Zak escapes the old folks’ home and ends up under a tarp on the skiff Tyler uses to escape the arson scene. From then on, the two are one in their escape.
Set to the banjo-heavy, fiddle-forward tunes of a wonderfully curated Appalachian folk soundtrack (any Chance McCoy song will get the vibe across), the two sail through the Outer Banks of North Carolina in hopes of making it down to Florida. Tyler is tough, rude, and emotionally impenetrable from the get-go, but Zak’s candid approach, refusal to be offended, and genial nature eventually usher the two into a harmonious friendship that finds its voice when—believe it or not—they mirror the Moonlight ocean scene that momentarily stole our breath and stopped our hearts in 2016. Tyler holds his arms lightly underneath Zak’s body as he floats freely for the first time, the camera lingering half underwater at the whim of the waves almost identically. Somehow, it’s beautiful, not mocking.
While Tyler looks over his shoulder for his enemies, Zak is weary of his own pursuer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), his caretaker from the nursing home that’s been tasked with finding him. Of course, her intentions are much friendlier than Duncan and Ratboy’s. After she finds them, Zak chucks her car keys into the bay, and she feels she has no choice but to accompany them on their raft journey, shifting the film from Huck Finn vibes to O Brother Where Art Thou? vibes. Through casting decisions alone, it’s obvious that Tyler and Eleanor are soon to be a fling. Johnson and LaBeouf can fawn and flirt with the best of them. Meanwhile, Zak drives the narrative forward with his passionate yearning to meet personal wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), aka Clint.
Falcon doesn’t hold up to most of its plot developments. Every ten-minute period carries a feature’s worth of required suspension of disbelief. In that sense, it’s a piece of magical realism or fantasy folk. Yet—considering the dialogue, score, cinematography, performances, heart, and humor shine so brightly—it’s a savvy, surprisingly mature framing device from first time writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. The two dreamt up the screenplay out of their desire to make a film that real-life friend Gottsagen could star in, and it’s clear they knew they had something spectacular in Gottsagen’s on-screen presence paired with LaBeouf’s traumatized lost boy persona (which bled into real life when LaBeouf was arrested for public drunkenness while filming in July 2017).
Dern, Hawkes, Church, Bernthal, and Johnson are terrific, but Falcon reaches its heights when LaBeouf and Gottsagen are center stage. Wonderfully improvised moments—e.g. when the two lightly slap, stretch, and play with each other’s faces through searing smiles or when Zak insists the first rule of traveling together is “Party”—weaken our defenses and set us up to be plowed over by the film’s more emotional moments, shared over sunsets and bonfires and loose dreams. Some of these moments fall prey to streamlined montage, but it’s a small price to pay in cheesiness for the sincere emotion that often follows. Otherwise, simple exchanges between Zak and Tyler (Tyler: “You didn’t curse. You should curse. Why don’t you curse?”; Zak: “Because I don’t.”) constantly elicit a smile, or, as easily, a happy tear.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a triumph. It’s a novel movie, achieving cinematic chemistry in its finest, most unexpected form—one that takes on an especially profound significance if we choose to believe the cast’s insistence that Gottsagen gave LaBeouf a new outlook on life amidst a desperate rough patch in real life (similar to the way he does in the film). Maybe it’s manufactured marketing bullshit, but it’s hard to watch LaBeouf look as lovingly as he does at Gottsagen on the press tour and imagine anything else is true. Either way, the filmic result is fantastic.