Alice O’Hare reviews The Peanut Butter Falcon, showing in our cinema until Thursday 21 November.
At the centre of modern-day buddy film and road movie mash-up The Peanut Butter Falcon is the most unlikely of pairings. We meet the charming Zak (Zack Gottsagen) first, a young man with Down’s syndrome who has big dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. Beside him is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a bottom-of-the-barrel fisherman, highly likeable but morally questionable as he effectively steals a living from his rivals. The two characters are introduced in parallel, and, as Zac decides to break free from the suffocating retirement home in which he is being ‘cared’ for, so ensues a spiral of hilarity that brings the men together.
Empathy does not come naturally to Tyler, with looming guilt and a devastating crime hot on his trail. Zak, on the other hand, just wants to be a friend, and once his desire to love rubs off on his fleeing counterpart, the most formidable bond is formed. The film really hits its stride as the two men embark on their journey across the wetlands of the American South, forcing us to question our stereotyped assumptions about each of their backgrounds as the quest progresses and both attempt to escape their troubled pasts.
Zak is judged solely based on his disability by everyone he encounters. The discrimination is never heavy-handed or dwelled upon, instead presented to us as ever-present fleeting references and name-calling that only heightens how engrained these attitudes are among those around him. Debut directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote the film specifically for Gottsagen after seeing him perform and it is no wonder why. Gottsagen is the beating heart of the film as he delivers the most startling of breakout performances. His comic timing is impeccable; the gags never undercut the seriousness of the film’s subject matter but rather enhance it, making the lack of opportunities that present themselves to Zak all the more heart-breaking as his intelligence and charm shines through.
Based on first impressions, Tyler could not be more different to Zak, a brash, selfish and dismissive individual that, in a not too different world, we would expect to be the perpetrator of the abuse Zak faces. But, underneath his surface level tough guy persona, Tyler is just like his new friend: a rebel, let down by those he trusts and yearning to fulfil his own warped version of the American Dream. The performance is one that will almost certainly be overlooked by any major awards ceremonies but is undoubtedly just as good as anything set to take home a major gong. LaBeouf a classic case of the child star turned troubled figure, and although he is now heavily involved in performance art as opposed to the screen, his expert channelling of troubled Tyler is strident evidence as to why he shouldn’t hang up his acting boots just yet.
As directors, Nilson and Schwartz show a level of craft way beyond their years. Such a strong sense of setting is evoked by the superb American indie aesthetic, the washed-out colour palette of the overgrown marshland channelling a lingering irony that the dreams at the end of the journey no longer exist. And yet, each frame is brimming with hope; the road or the river always continues, and so too does our hope that the men will reach their destinations for a better future.
Although tragic in places, particularly as the inevitability of fate catches up with our two heroes, The Peanut Butter Falcon is far from a tragedy. It is a film that roars with human spirit and optimism, showing how just amazing we all are when given the right opportunities. Much like its two wonderful central characters, the film constantly breaks expectations; the result is one of the year’s most uplifting and surprising feats.