The Peanut Butter Falcon is a fun revisitation of the classic American adventure story. It follows two unlikely companions, Zak and Tyler, who are thrown together by a mutual need to get out of town. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with downs syndrome who is running away from his care home, pursued by the well-meaning Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a fisherman who has made the wrong people angry. After a couple narrow escapes both Zak and Tyler realize that they need each other; Zak as a stand-in for Tyler’s brother; and Tyler as one of the few people who sees and treats Zak as a full human being.
Unfortunately, much of the writing in Peanut Butter Falcon is clunky. The introductory scenes in the care home and the fishing yard are stilted: those scenes wind up feeling undirected, unedited, and rushed. In one scene, Eleanor’s boss urgently calls her into his office, but when she gets there, she, along with the audience, is forced to sit through the tail end of a pointless phone call. Tyler’s rivals talk in an expository way that makes them feel more like super villains than fishermen. They are caricatures of something that does not quite exist: a confusing mash-up of a bad cliché of an inner-city gang member and an equally bad cliché of a blue-collar worker.
I would have liked more from Dakota Johnson, but her role was more of an outline than a character. She was effortlessly swept off her feet by Tyler, despite the characters seeming incompatible. Tyler mostly made judgmental assumptions about her rather than asking her questions about herself and although we definitely see her come to respect the way Tyler treats Zak, there is never a shift in how Tyler treats Eleanor. Regardless, Johnson played the character with heart and made Eleanor more than she would have been in lesser hands.
Maybe the most egregious writing foul in Peanut Butter Falcon, though, is that one of the movie’s two (count em two) speaking black characters was a “magical negro”. This is a bad move in and of itself, but is made worse because the filmmakers are familiar with the trope. In an interview with City Weekly Mike Shwartz (who wrote and directed alongside Tyler Nilson) said that they wanted to make sure that Zak never came across as a “magical disability person”, directly referencing the magical negro trope. (The film succeeds in this pursuit. Zak’s character has goals, a fun personality, strong opinions, etc.) Those same filmmakers being lazy enough to include a blind black man who lives in the woods and proselytizes to anyone who comes to his door is almost unfathomable when they apparently know that the negro trope exists is incredibly problematic.
So, the positives.
As mentioned above, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a movie that aims to empower people with downs syndrome and it does that well. Not only is Zak a nuanced, interesting character with a big personality, he is also played by a person with downs syndrome. Gottsagen is a great actor and his performance, especially in scenes with Tyler, are really well executed. We are overdue for casting choices like this one.
Also, the movie did not shy away from the sometimes harsh reality of what life with downs syndrome can be like. Zak is underestimated, bullied, and called names often and although those things hurt his feelings, he remains a resilient man with dreams to fulfill. He is a fully fleshed character from the beginning and over the course of his journey he continues to grow as a person.
The chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen cannot be overstated. The two share several intimate moments: dancing around a campfire, walking through cornfields, and (my personal favorite) sitting on the edge of their raft gently slapping each other’s faces. The bond they create rests somewhere between brotherhood and friendship and is expressed masterfully by both actors.
The movie is a visual love-letter to the American south. Nigel Bluck creates a scenic backdrop to the story, incorporating drone shots and wide-angles that highlight that beauty of the natural landscape in breathtaking moments that never detract from the story.
Oh, and Thomas Haden Church has a great little cameo as retired wrestler “Salt Water Redneck”.
Overall, this movie has its flaws: the relationship between Zak and Tyler is obviously the element that the filmmakers put the most energy into (and the rest of the movie suffers for that emphasis, even if it is the crux of the story), but the movie is worth a watch for that relationship and for its ultimately empowering story.
Have you seen The Peanut Butter Falcon? Well, what did you think?