During production of The Peanut Butter Falcon, Shia LaBeouf was very publicly arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior, a scandal that has loomed over the film ever since. But it’s here now, and I’ve discovered that with it, LaBeouf has been given something miraculous, something any celebrity who’s ever been caught on the wrong side of the spotlight wishes they could get: the opportunity to fade away. I’ve simply never liked the actor more.
In Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz’s sincere feature directorial debut, LaBeouf plays Tyler, a worn-out, frustrated fisherman whose capacity and tendency for violence feel like a purposeful, methodic form of self-punishment. His sense of worth is dampened so drastically – a product of an irredeemable mistake he made and the death of his brother (John Bernthal, seen but not heard in a series of flashbacks plopped along the film) – that he feels he has no right in wreaking judgement or condescension upon others.
That makes him the perfect companion for Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a Down syndrome person tossed into a nursing home by the state because there is no one else to take care of him. But surrounded by a group of elders who are surprisingly invested in his freedom (including Bruce Dern, one of the many surprises in the cast), Zak is able to escape with nothing more than a pair of tighty-whities and a dream: to be like his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and become a professional wrestler.
Zak crosses paths with Tyler soon after Tyler gets caught up in some bad business with Duncan (John Hawkes), who’s as close to a lakeside don as I’ve ever seen. Like audiences, Tyler is quickly absorbed by Zak’s charming, yet regrettably predestined ignorance, and as he prepares to hightail it to Florida to escape Duncan’s wrath, he promises Zak he’ll get him to the Salt Water Redneck’s Wrestling School, which is conveniently on the way.
Even if the almost patronizing scene where LaBeouf suggests Zak may be having the time of his life living the American Dream inside a Mark Twain story had been cut, there would be no way of hiding the contemporary Huck Finn odyssey The Peanut Butter Falcon strides for and achieves. Its first two acts consist of a journey along the beautiful southbound plains and waters of North Carolina, where eccentric add-ons make up new chapters (including a revolver-wielding blind preacher) and several parts of which take place on a homemade raft.
While the film loses steam with its rather illogical game of cat and mouse with Duncan, and there are several decisions characters make for seemingly little logical purpose, it’s during those scenes where we see Tyler first benefit from his friendship with Zak that The Peanut Butter Falcon flourishes. Say what you will about LaBeouf’s life off of the screen, but it makes him one of the few actors capable of turning this protector companion on the page into a layered role, and it is with a cheerful resonance that we witness Tyler and Zak become a family.
One picture surely on the creators’ list of inspiration would be Rain Man, which brought awareness to autism, but which also received criticism for casting Dustin Hoffman as the disabled genius. It’s part of a longstanding argument for advocacy that Nilson and Schwartz find themselves on the other end of. They casted their delightful star and built a story specifically around him, and it’s great to see a surprisingly expansive cast attached to it, which includes pro wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, as well as Dakota Johnson as the nurse sent to track down Zak before the state finds out he’s missing.
While the catalyst on and off the screen for The Peanut Butter Falcon will be its young star, Gottsagen (who received a glowing and extended standing ovation at the film’s SXSW premiere), it’s important to remember that this story actually belongs to Tyler and his path to self-redemption. Though everyone in the audience may not have the time of their lives experiencing this film, it’s a great deal of fun and a testament to the filmmakers seeing Zack and Shia have their’s.
Logic is sometimes sacrificed in the name of friendship in The Peanut Butter Falcon, an American odyssey with a welcomed retro feel and a good heart where its lead duo can romp in cheery harmony.