Often in cinema, acclaim comes to non-disabled performers telling the stories of members of the disabled community. Jon Voight in Coming Home, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, and Sean Penn in I Am Sam are just a few which come to mind. If a disabled performer is included, typically they are intended as inspiration for the supporting roles or, when placed in support, are a prop for the lead. In all cases, it’s entirely performative and manipulative, more eager to elicit strong emotions from the audience to make themselves feel better about themselves than to actually tell a story with any authenticity. Co-writers and co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz (The Winter of the Beard) change all this with The Peanut Butter Falcon, a film which wears its heart on its sleeve without an ounce of sarcasm or cynicism. In many ways, The Peanut Butter Falcon is too pure, making it the perfect salve for the rancor permeating our lives today.
Forced to live at the Britthayven Retirement Home because he has no family to live with, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) dreams of running off to Ayden, North Carolina, and joining a wrestling camp run by his idol and professional wrestler, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). When Zak successfully escapes the grounds, he takes shelter in the back of a boat owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a young man with problems of his own. As the pair begin to travel together across the Pamlico Sound, a bond forms which goes beyond friendship, which they’ll need as retirement home employee Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and local fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes) hunt for them.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is an undeniably joyous feature which tells a story of family and healing. What truly makes The Peanut Butter Falcon triumphant is how it sidesteps all the tropes that pull down other films starring a performer with a disability. As a character, Zak is fully formed and capable. With the exception of never being on his own, Zak is like any other 22-year-old; he wants to follow his passion and refuses to be held back. Everyone at the nursing home wants to treat him like he’s different, as if he’s weaker or less capable than others. In one beautiful moment, two characters discuss Zak and, in defense of him, Tyler points out that while people may not use the R-word when talking to Zak, the language they use suggests that they think of him in that way. This acknowledgement of how the words we use can come to define how people see others is brutal, blunt, and incredibly effective at getting to the heart of The Peanut Butter Falcon. Considering the story of how The Peanut Butter Falcon came to be, a focus on language and behavior toward others is incredibly fitting. In brief, eight years ago Nilson and Schwartz met Gottsagen at a camp for people with disabilities and he told the duo he wanted to be an actor. Upon learning that roles don’t traditionally go to people with disabilities, Gottsagen challenged them to create one for him. It’s a sweet story, to be sure, but what Nilson and Schwartz do with The Peanut Butter Falcon goes beyond merely putting Gottsagen at the center of a story, they do so while removing every trope audiences have come to expect. Zak isn’t to be held aloft and idolized, he doesn’t grant redemption, and he certainly isn’t incapable of mistakes. All of this is what makes the character, like the others, feel so real.
Nilson and Schwartz may have written the film at Gottsagen’s request, but credit for the performance entirely belongs to Gottsagen. His performance radiates charisma and charm, whether he’s trying to convince one of the residents at Britthayven to help him escape or he’s developing his wrestling persona. Coupled with the great energy and rapport with LaBeouf, Gottsagen often overtakes the scenes just from his timing and delivery. This is well and good for the faster moments which rely more on Gottsagen’s physical ability, but the real power of his performance comes from the quieter moments. He naturally understands the ebb and flow of a scene, using his inherent size and delivery to make the most of the moments. In one such moment, as Zak and Tyler sail their newly made raft down the river, the two boys positioned next to each other, offering comfort after an emotional day of baptisms and construction. It’s a scene which juxtaposes their current situation with something from Tyler’s past. In this moment, Zah becomes Tyler’s younger brother. Despite Gottsagen’s comparatively larger physical presence, his delivery denotes the thoughts of someone for whom looks up to Tyler. It’s a scene so sweet, so authentic that your heart breaks for Tyler even as Zak, via Gottsagen’s performance, patches it up. Gottsagen’s performance more than proves that the right actor is often the one closest to the material.
Joining Gottsagen is a cavalcade of actors whose presence in any other film would feel showy or false and a distraction from the center story. Known globally for her role in the Fifty Shades of Grey series, Johnson has proven through roles in Bad Times at the El Royale, Susperia, and A Bigger Splash that she’s more capable than general audiences might expect. As a character, Eleanor grounds The Peanut Butter Falcon through more realistic stakes than the ones coming from Tyler’s story. As a performer, Johnson adds dimensions to a character who could just be a transient threat to Zak’s journey. Johnson offers a softness and warmth, pervading the story exactly when it needs that emotional boost. LaBeouf is similarly affected by public perception, known more for his roles in the Transformers series and his eccentric art installations than his work as a serious dramatic actor. Audiences are used to LaBeouf’s performances containing a false bravado, an aspect Tyler possesses a great deal of, however, there’s something new in this performance. For the first time in his lengthy career, LaBeouf appears to make himself vulnerable, channeling the pain of a trauma he can’t quite shake and desires to be free from. In supporting roles, Church, Hawkes, Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight) as Zak’s roommate Carl, Jon Berthal (Baby Driver) as Tyler’s brother Mark, and notable wrestling superstars Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts as backyard wrestling enthusiasts Jacob and Samson each offer something small, yet significant to the story.
The story itself is simple, yet powerful. Zak is on a quest for self-agency, Tyler is on a quest for redemption, and Eleanor is on a quest for closure. Through an adventure which winds its way from Richmond, Virginia, through North Carolina, they each get a piece of what they need. Individually, each one would remain stuck, treading water in a cycle of frustration. In this way, Nilson and Schwartz gracefully construct a tale which never diminishes any of the characters or finds them being the savior to another; rather, it’s a coming together of a family filled with unconditional support. This one just so happens to include a soundtrack comprised of the sounds of the Appalachia — blue grass, country, and gospel — the perfect background to a tale of outlaws with pure hearts on the run from their pasts and an eye on the horizon.
To find a screening near you, head to the official website for The Peanut Butter Falcon.
In select theaters August 9th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.