Zak is a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome. Because he has no family that can take care of him, he was made a ward of the state and lives in a retirement home in North Carolina. There, he is cared for by a woman named Eleanor. He has made several attempts to escape the retirement home, but to no avail. Idolizing a professional wrestler who went by the sobriquet of The Salt Water Redneck, he dreams of entering the business himself. One night, he sneaks out with the assistance of his elderly roommate, Carl, and hides in a fishing boat.
One of the most admirable aspects of The Peanut Butter Falcon stares the audience right in the face as soon as the film begins. By 2019, it was common for actors and actresses to convincingly play characters with a disability. There were a few cases in which an actor or actress shared the same impediment as their character, but this practice was typically the exception rather than the rule. John Krasinski notably had to persuade executives to cast a deaf girl in his film A Quiet Place – and that was just one year before The Peanut Butter Falcon debuted.
With their own film, directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz did something remarkably forward-looking. The title character, Zak, was portrayed by one Zack Gottsagen – a man who himself had Down syndrome. The directors met Mr. Gottsagen at a camp for disabled actors in the early 2010s in Venice, California. They saw potential in the aspiring actor, and they expressed interest in making a film with him. Following the creation of a proof-of-concept video, the duo received funding for a feature-length film starring Mr. Gottsagen. The project was announced in June of 2017 before seeing its public release nearly two years later. The story of how this film came to be had a significant influence on its story. In it, Zak aspires to be a professional wrestler, not being deterred by his disability – much like how the individual portraying him sought to become an actor.
Naturally, Zak has a much more difficult time following his dream, having been rendered a ward of the state under the watchful eye of Eleanor. Mr. Gottsagen’s portrayal of Zak is quite impressive due to the level of nuance he lends the character. For various reasons, most works of fiction tend to shy away from depicting people with physical or mental disabilities. Whenever they are shown, the characters in question are typically one-note and solely intended to illicit sympathy from the audience. It is therefore to the writers’ credit that they made Zak a fully-fledged character in his own right who is treated like a normal human. He is decidedly quirky and occasionally demonstrates a rather tactless attitude – bluntly telling Eleanor that his roommate is old. However, at the same time, you get the sense that these character traits developed independent of his disability. The same determination that drives many of us can be seen in Zak.
The fishing boat Zak hides in to evade capture is owned by a man named Tyler. This character, played by Shia LaBeouf, is a highly troubled fisherman. He is in a bad way financially, resorting to selling stolen crabs at a local shack to make ends meet. This proposition comes to an abrupt end when he is turned away due to not having a license. Following a heated argument with the local crabbers, he burns $12,000 worth of equipment on the docks. This infuriates the owners, and two miscreants, Duncan and Ratboy, chase after Tyler. The fisherman, in turn, makes a getaway in his boat, turning Zak into an inadvertent stowaway.
This is where the story begins in earnest. Zak and Tyler are two men attempting to pursue their goals while persistent outside forces seek to capture them. Zak wants nothing more than to meet the Salt Water Redneck whereas Tyler seeks to start a new life in Florida. Tyler is initially uninterested in Zak’s plight, but changes his mind when a psychopathic thirteen-year-old boy bullies the latter into jumping into a lake despite his inability to swim. It’s difficult to make a scene in which a thirteen-year-old gets punched in the face by an adult cathartic, but The Peanut Butter Falcon argues that you merely need the right context. After putting the bully in his place, Tyler jumps into the water to save Zak. Realizing Zak lacks the capacity to reach his destination alone, Tyler agrees to accompany him to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school, which is fortunately on the way to Florida.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is often seen as a contemporary retelling of Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – even being referred to as such in the film itself by Tyler. They have very similar story beats in how both narratives revolve around characters pursued by the authorities on a journey to reach a promised land. Much like how Huckleberry Finn’s journey with Jim taught him to be virtuous in the face of society’s expectations, Tyler gets over his intolerance to Zak, even becoming something of a mentor figure to him. Due to peanut butter being the one grocery item they can afford, Zak names his wrestling persona The Peanut Butter Falcon.
The film even has a similar development wherein an established character joins late in the journey and becomes the scenario’s tritagonist, though this character is portrayed in a more flattering light than Tom Sawyer. Eleanor catches up with Zak and Tyler, and the latter persuaders her to join them. What I like about her decision to do so is how organically it develops. Before she departs to search for Zak, she is seen having a heated exchange with her boss. It’s clear the people who put her in charge of finding Zak have no idea what to do with him and their solutions are more for the sake of checking off boxes than his wellbeing. The biggest catalyst for her change of heart is when she finds Zak only to be informed by her boss that they intend to transfer him to a recovery home for drug addicts. Her decision to join Zak and Tyler could then be seen as a parallel to Huckleberry Finn declaring he would rather go to hell than betray Jim. It’s a great example of writers using a famous story as inspiration only to disperse the similarities among the cast rather than create characters who serve the exact same role.
Interestingly, despite the fact that The Peanut Butter Falcon depicts many lowlifes, it also celebrates the best in humanity. The trio arrives at the home of the Salt Water Redneck only to learn his school has been closed for over a decade. He isn’t even a wrestler anymore, going by the name Clint. When Tyler tells Clint just how much Zak meant to him, the wrestler dons his persona once more, taking on his fan as a protégé.
Admittedly, one minor issue I have with this film is that it doesn’t stick the landing gracefully. Zak is set up for a staged fight against a friend of Clint’s. Said friend is annoyed by Zak’s reception, and begins fighting like a typical heel – which is to say, he doesn’t hold back. Zak then overcomes his fears and throws Clint’s friend out of the ring. As this is going on, Duncan and Ratboy enter the crowd and knock Tyler unconscious with a tire iron. After recovering from the hospital, Eleanor drives him and Zak to Florida.
If it sounds like I summarized a lot of story within a single paragraph, it’s because the film has a jarringly truncated ending. Everything I just described occurs within the last ten minutes. It’s as though the filmmakers ran out of money at the exact moment Zak tosses Clint’s friend out of the ring and suddenly had to wrap things up. Good writers should grasp the importance of showing rather than telling, but in this case, the ending is a bunch of last-minute story beats mashed together without giving them a chance to settle. It’s certainly not a terrible ending, but given how good the pacing of the film was leading up to the final ten minutes, it’s a little disappointing.
It is impossible to overstate how much of a living punchline Shia LaBeouf was throughout the 2010s, having both starred in many terrible films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and made a fool out of himself in public on numerous occasions. It was easy to see him as his generation’s Matthew Broderick insofar that he started his career fairly early in life only to peak within the next few years and never recover. Sure, he had starred in a few oddball arthouse films such as Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, but even that failed to repair his less-than-stellar reputation. People were consequently caught off-guard by his performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon, which was arguably his most genuine since Andrew Davis’s adaptation of Louis Sachar’s young adult novel Holes.
The Peanut Butter Falcon was a film instantly beloved by critics upon its 2019 release. While it has its problems, it was a perfectly fine debut from these two filmmakers. Professional wrestling fans will doubtlessly enjoy this film and anyone seeking out something down-to-Earth and genuine should check it out as well. It may have taken Mr. Gottsagen, Mr. Nilson, and Mr. Schwartz the greater part of a decade to see this project through, but the results were worth the investment.
Final Score: 6/10