Undoubtedly one of the most heartwarming films of the year, The Peanut Butter Falcon is the embodiment of a feel-good film. After making waves at various film festivals, directors Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson’s debut feature film is now screening in cinemas across the UK.
At the centre of the narrative, set in the North Carolina Outer Banks, is the unlikely brotherly friendship that buds between Zak (a debuting Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down’s syndrome who’s dream is to run away and become a pro wrestler, and Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck fisherman on the wrong side of the law and rival crab fishers.
In an effort to pursue his dream, Zak breaks out of the care home the state has put him in and away from his carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who goes in search of him. But before she can find him, Zak meets Tyler on the run and the trio go on a Mark Twain-esque adventure to find Zak’s wrestling hero ‘The Salt Water Redneck’.
The story itself is nothing groundbreaking. In fact, there isn’t much about the film that is, but the casting and performances are what brings it to life and tugs one’s heartstrings. The chemistry between Gottsagen and LeBoeuf is phenomenal, as are their performances. Following the film’s screening at the London Film Festival (LFF), LeBoeuf revealed that he simply “fell in love” with Zack on set, and it’s hard not to fall in love with the friendship that blossoms between the two on-screen.
The script was written with Gottsagen specifically in mind for the role of Zak, after writer-director duo Nilson and Shwartz met him at a filmmaking camp for actors with disabilities. What’s important to note is that this film wasn’t made in order to ‘tick diversity boxes’, but because they recognised Zack Gottsagen’s talent and the fact there are hardly any roles for actors with disabilities.
Funding for the film was hard fought for and Nilson and Shwartz were even reportedly offered money to drop Gottsagen from the production. Knowing that they stuck with him to see through their vision embodies the fraternal spirit of The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Moreover, the film doesn’t make a song and dance about Zak having Down’s syndrome. Instead, his personality takes centre stage. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of making his condition the ‘point’ of the story, but they do well to avoid this as Zak is never defined or restricted by his condition. In fact, it’s the opposite, as he proves to both viewers and his well-meaning but somewhat patronising carer Eleanor that he’s more capable and independent than people give him credit.
One thing The Peanut Butter Falcon falls down on is how poorly written Eleanor is, which is a shame because Dakota Johnson’s a capable actress and deserves better. She serves little purpose other than to act as the romantic interest for Tyler while personifying the limits Zak tries to push against. Considering the film’s supposed to be about the trio’s journey to becoming a makeshift family, Eleanor’s lack of characterisation is a real disappointment.
LeBoeuf, on the other hand, shines in a role written with far more care and convincing character arc—one which arguably reflects Shia LaBeouf’s own personal experiences in the lead up to this project. It’s no secret that LaBeouf has struggled to stay out of the headlines in recent years, and has been open in the press about his experiences. He was arrested during production after drinking and ranting at a police officer. After returning to set, Gottsagen reportedly levelled with LaBeouf and explained to him that he was risking the whole project and his opportunity to become an actor.
Shia LaBeouf has since been sober for two years and, following the film’s LFF screening, said starring in this film saved his life, while describing Gottsagen as his brother.
The Peanut Butter Falcon packs plenty of laughs and an emotional wallop and is delivered by its central performances. It’s no masterpiece, but sometimes all one needs is a good surface-level movie—something unostentatious and fun that gives a little hope for humanity and leaves you with a smile.
Cast & Crew
writers & directors: Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz.
starring: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Zack Gottsagen, Jon Bernthal & Thomas Haden Church.