Let’s get this out of the way first: not all American stories about river journeys are do-overs of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Every interview I’ve read about The Peanut Butter Falcon makes this glib comparison. To me, it’s like saying every tale of a conscience-stricken criminal is Crime and Punishment, every story of a bored housewife Madame Bovary.
Sure, there are superficial similarities. Like Jim and Huck, the two main characters of Falcon take to the water in desperation. One of them is viewed as less than fully human because of factors he can’t control. But, charming though Falcon is, it lacks the panoramic scope or scathing social critique of Mark Twain’s classic.
The Peanut Butter Falcon shows the merits of an independent film shot on a tight budget. It’s an intimate, oddball tale with a loose, improvised feel. And the story of its genesis is delightful: its writer/directors, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, had years ago befriended Zack Gottsagen, a young man with Down syndrome who’d been studying acting since his childhood and dreamed of being a movie star. Nilson and Schwartz knew they wanted to make a film with Gottsagen, and were able to win over several top-shelf Hollywood actors to help them achieve it.
Their saga opens with Gottsagen’s character Zak unhappily warehoused at a nursing home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Zak’s sole escape from tedium is his fantasy of learning pro wrestling from the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose exploits Zak has watched obsessively on a worn videotape. Lucky for Zak, his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) is a retired engineer, who helps him craft a literal escape, so he can make his way down the coast to the wrestler’s training camp.
On a chilly night, Zak finds warmth under a boat cover. As chance would have it, Tyler (Shia LaBoeuf) commandeers that same boat to evade a couple of crabbers (played by John Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf) who are out for his blood. (In the corrupt system of crabbing licenses along this stretch of the coast, Tyler has been passed over, thus resorting to theft to survive.)
Initially, Tyler sees his stowaway as a burden, but is quickly won over by Zak’s goodness and perseverance, agreeing to take him to the wrestling camp on his way to a new life in Florida. Meanwhile, a worker at the nursing home, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), has been scapegoated for Zak’s escape by its corrupt administrator and is admonished to find him pronto. Naturally, the paths of these three intersect, and Eleanor is faced with a crisis of conscience: whether to return Zak to an empty life, or allow him to follow his dream to completion.
For a film that barely clocks in over 90 minutes, we get a strong toehold on Zak and Tyler’s characters across The Peanut Butter Falcon’s run time. Zak carries an internal sense of badness from his abandonment by his family and the cruelty of ignorant people labelling him a worthless “retard.” Tyler not only contends with poverty, but is hobbled by grief over his brother’s death (Jon Bernthal, seen in flashback). Eleanor is not as fleshed out, but she is sublimating her own grief from early widowhood into her care for the nursing home residents.
Shia LaBoeuf deserves particular singling out. His off-screen antics and misbehavior often overshadow his talents, and a drunk and disorderly arrest during Falcon’s shooting threatened to derail its production. Despite these personal struggles, I’ve never found his performances to be less than superb, from his first movie gig in Holes, to the more recent World War Two drama Fury. As Tyler in this film, even his gaze communicates depths of sorrow, a brittle man barely coping with a gaping absence in his life.
The Peanut Butter Falcon also benefits from a vivid sense of place, with the Georgia coast near Savannah standing in decently for the southern reaches of the Outer Banks (gotta love those Peach State tax incentives!). The weathered poverty-level villages, the fishing and crabbing traditions, and the aquatic vistas are all satisfyingly realized.
Sometimes the dialogue in the film is too on the nose, as when Carl tells Zak that “friends are the family you choose,” unsubtly foreshadowing the bond that will form among its trio of broken people. And the fact that this is Nilson and Schwartz’s feature debut comes through in its choppy narrative. A little more meat, and a few additional scenes, would’ve been helpful. Praise is due the writer/director duo, however, for successfully giving Falcon an optimistic tone that still honors the sadness and hardship their characters have endured.
Their film, in its own fantastical way, captures the travails of intellectually-impaired people and those who care about them. Sadly, when family is absent, folks with Down syndrome are sometimes institutionalized in settings manifestly not designed for them. And as the film shows (and honestly, struggles a bit with), it can be a high-wire balancing act, to support their dreams without being patronizing.
Despite its flaws, The Peanut Butter Falcon, in the sum of its parts, lands on the side of the angels. Even if it doesn’t herald the Second Coming of Mark Twain.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )