Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a wrestling-obsessed young man with Down’s syndrome who has been living in nursing home, the state lacking the resources to put him somewhere more appropriate. Lonely and bored, he spends his days making thwarted escape attempts, until one day he manages to get away. He crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), a crab fisherman who is on the run for his own reasons. Tyler decides to help Zak achieve his dream of enrolling in a wrestling school taught by his idol, but their journey is fraught with difficulties. And Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s carer, is hot on their heels…
The Peanut Butter Falcon started life when co-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz met Zack Gottsagen at a camp for performers with disabilities, and decided to write a film for him to star in. It’s obvious what they saw in him – Gottsagen is a beautiful actor. Open and expressive, with an innate sense of comic timing, he more than holds his own against the established actors that surround him (and it’s quite a cast, with Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles). His relationship with Shia LeBeouf – who is perhaps the best he’s ever been here – is the reason the film works so well. They have a palpable bond. Watching them together, just hanging out, is an absolute pleasure.
And more than anything else, this is a hangout movie. Yes, there are characters on the run, and yes, there are some exciting set pieces (including a gripping boat chase), but all the best moments are to be found in the uneventful scenes that Tyler and Zak spend together; chatting, messing around, and inventing their secret handshake. Spending time in their presence is such a joy, it makes it easy to stay with the film as it ambles its circuitous way towards the finale.The biggest misstep comes in Dakota Johnson’s character. Eleanor is so poorly written, it borders on offensive. The film would have been better off without her. This is no reflection on Johnson, who does her best with what little she has to work with – she at least suggests an inner life, which is certainly not in the screenplay. You get the distinct impression that Eleanor is only there because they needed a female character – someone for Tyler to fall in love with, and to threaten the boys’ fun with her feminine fears. There’s something very antiquated about the way she is treated as a wet blanket, unable to enjoy herself because she’s so tightly wound. That wouldn’t have been quite so bad if there was any depth to her, but her characterisation is limited to sporadic exclamations (“I’m a widow!”) which are never explored any further; like expository Tourette’s.
This is a real problem, and yet The Peanut Butter Falcon is generally so endearing and good-hearted, you want to forgive it its trespasses. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, and the treatment of Eleanor is frustrating, but you’ll still leave the cinema with a smile on your face and your heart warmed.