What the world needs now is some good, uplifting cinema—something to remind us our fellow human beings aren’t always the most selfish, terrible versions of themselves. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is an inspirational road-trip movie that manages to deliver genuine heartwarming moments in its 97-minute runtime. The low-budget indie features a predictable plot but is saved by some winning performances. The fact that it was written and directed by Tyler Nilson, a Cucalorus alum and fellow coastal North Carolinian, doesn’t hurt either.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with down syndrome at an assisted-living facility. He’s different than the senior citizens, who are counting down the days until the sweet release of death. He dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, obsessively watching old VHS tapes of his favorite heel, “The Saltwater Redneck” (Thomas Haden Church). Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is a care worker and the closest thing Zak has to a friend his own age. After Zak convinces one of the seniors to help him escape, Eleanor must try to find him before he ends up injured, dead or shipped off to a state-run mental-health facility.
Without much real-world experience, Zak finds himself alone in his underwear, bereft of supplies and with no idea how to execute his plan to get to the Saltwater Redneck’s school for wrestling. He hides on a small boat and is discovered by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck fisherman who has made some short-sighted decisions that force him to flee the last remnants of his old life. After looting some crab traps and getting his ass kicked, Tyler decides to get back at his rival (John Hawkes) by burning all his gear.
Tyler isn’t exactly sure of what to do with Zak. He has his own problems to deal with, but he quickly realizes there’s little hope of Zak achieving his dream without help. The unlikely pair begin to make their way down river, 70 miles south in a Mark Twain-inspired journey through beautiful coastal locations.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a movie that feels impossible to dislike. The chemistry between Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf is palpable; they’re a charming pair of ne’er-do-wells who manage to provide something the other has been desperately missing. Zak not only needs a friend but someone to believe in him. Tyler struggles with the loss of his older brother and finds a sense of kinship with Zak. The story itself is at best capable—an independent dramedy about underdogs struggling to find a sense of purpose in a cold, unfeeling world.
The word that constantly popped into my head while watching the movie was “harmless.” “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a nice movie with funny moments and interesting characters. Certain moments harken back to similar fare like “Rain Man.” Still, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” never gives enough on the front or back end to provide the audience with a satisfactory conclusion.
The creative concept of “leave them wanting more” can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes it means leaving the audience so thrilled they wish there had been more to enjoy. In the case of “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” I was left with unresolved plot threads that made me wonder if anyone had considered the ultimate fate of the characters.
In spite of the awkward and wonky third act, there is a lot to like about this film. It may never achieve dramatic excellence of similar cinematic fare, but it’s charming enough to be considered worthwhile.