By Richard Ades
The name “Mark Twain” comes up in an early scene of The Peanut Butter Falcon. It happens when a nursing-home attendant runs into an unemployed fisherman named Tyler and asks if he’s seen the runaway she’s seeking. Rather than give her a straight answer, Tyler coyly suggests the escapee may be off on the kind of adventure Twain might have thought up.
That pretty much describes this warmhearted tale, which in many ways resembles an updated version of Huckleberry Finn.
To be sure, there are key differences. Rather than being a motherless boy and a runaway slave, the heroes are Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who’s lost both his job and his brother, and Zak (Zach Gottsagen), a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome. Like their literary counterparts, though, they’re on a trek in search of freedom and happiness. At one point, they even commandeer a raft.
We first meet Zak when he’s living in a North Carolina facility for senior citizens—the only place the state could find for him after he was abandoned by his family. Sharing a room with the sympathetic Carl (Bruce Dern), he spends his evenings watching old wrestling videotapes and dreaming of becoming a wrestler himself. If only he can escape, he plans to learn grappling moves by enrolling in the school run by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
Despite the efforts of friendly attendant Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak does escape and soon runs into Tyler, who is on the lam himself. Frustrated at his inability to obtain a crab-fishing license following his brother’s untimely death, Tyler has resorted to stealing from other fishermen’s traps. Beaten up for his efforts, he then retaliates by starting a fire that turns out to be more destructive than planned. He takes off in his boat, with two revenge-seeking fishermen in fierce pursuit.
It’s at this point that Tyler realizes Zak—a short, chubby man clad only in underwear—has been hiding on his boat. Thus begins a reluctant collaboration that eventually grows into a close friendship.
Co-writers and directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz tell the tale with warmth and wit. With help from a down-home musical score, they also do a good job of capturing the time (roughly the 1990s, judging from one character’s flip phone) and place (the coastal Carolinas and Georgia). The perfectly cast actors do the rest.
Despite playing a shotgun-toting character who’s down and out, LaBeouf projects grit and an undercurrent of decency. Whether he’s gruffly laying down the rules to his traveling companion or flirting with a woman who seems out of his league, you know he’s essentially a good guy.
As Eleanor, whose job requires her to track down Zak and bring him back to the nursing home whether he wants to go or not, Johnson combines a sense of duty with genuine caring.
But it’s Gottsagen’s portrayal of Zak that gives the film its soul. In fact, according to a producer who spoke at a preview screening, the whole film was built around the actor’s talents. As a mentally challenged man who’s determined to live the life he wants, not the one others have proscribed for him, Gottsagen paints an indelible portrait of naïve faith and brave determination.
Surprisingly, he’s also funny, with help from a script that knows how to laugh at someone’s foibles without ridiculing their challenges. In its respectful but non-pandering treatment of a person with disabilities, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a model of sensitivity.
Most of all, though, it’s a delightful and entertaining adventure—one that I’m already looking forward to seeing again.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
The Peanut Butter Falcon (PG-13) opens Aug. 23 at theaters nationwide.