Sometimes we go to the movies to get caught up in human stories. It’s easy to dismiss these tales as saccharine or bland. This can especially be true when many attempt to manipulate their audiences. The generic Sundance Indie dramas of the mid-2000s became guilty of this trend. Yet every once in a while, a film that comes from these origins breaks through thanks to the brilliance of those involved. In the case of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, the two writers/directors have crafted something that feels magical from beginning to end. Thanks to their endlessly entertaining screenplay and an incredible performance from Shia LeBeouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon rises above the crop. The crowd-pleaser embeds itself in your heart, making it one of the gems of 2019.
On its face, The Peanut Butter Falcon feels like a generic indie dramedy. The story follows a young boy named Zak (Zack Gottsagen) with Downs Syndrome as he attempts a Twainesque journey to a wrestling camp. Along the way, Zak meets the troubled Tyler (LaBeouf). The two fugitives buddy up, beginning a trip down the Atlantic Coast by any means possible. Meanwhile, Zak’s caretaker Elanor (Dakota Johnson) searches for her young patient.
Drawing from a bevy of magical and fantastical indie dramas, The Peanut Butter Falcon thrives because of the unbelievable charm coming from its leads. The draw will be LeBeouf, who delivers one of the very best turns of his career. The actor has been satirized and memed to death at this point, yet the last few years have allowed him to grow as a performer without the pressure placed on his early career. He delivers a deeply emotional performance as he struggles to come to terms with his grief. At the same time, he hides his immense pain underneath an infectious smile that draws you into his journey. This feels like a movie star performance placed into a small scale story, and its clear that a lesser actor would make the film feel gimmicky. Whether LeBeouf wants to admit it, his charisma makes him an undeniable draw, and it’s clear he’s on a Colin Farrell career path.
Equally important to the film’s success is Gottsagen. The young actor charms you from the word go and adds layers to a character that would border on caricature in most films. The actor, who actually has Downs Syndrome, perseveres through each setback with a layered and wonderful performance. Gottsagen has legitimately great comedic timing, and the director’s give him long takes to showcase his acting chops. Sharing the screen with Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts could be difficult for many actors. Yet Gottsagen consistently elevates the material and steals the scenes from the veteran performers. The screentime he shares with LaBeouf forces you to buy-in on this film and fall under its spell.
Nilson and Schwartz also let their actors pull some interesting subtext out of their script. Drawing on ideas inherent to southern film, especially around class strife, the good old boy motif, and the difficulties of living within the environments, The Peanut Butter Falcon crafts a richer text than one might expect. The divides between how Johnson’s character sees the world and the rest of the cast help introduce some interesting developments. There’s a sequence that draws on the concept of the Magical Negro, while simultaneously handing itself over the deeply religious living in the Southeast. John Hawkes, who acts as a villain for the film, brings a hauntingly real depiction of a man that is backed into a corner by economic anxiety.
The surprisingly polished cinematography from DP Nigel Bluck creates some enduring images of economic hardship and hard work. Unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild or Big Fish, The Peanut Butter Falcon draws on the realism of its world. Bluck makes the rusted buildings and wetland environments feel tactile. The digital world feels a million miles away and The Peanut Butter Falcon is all the better for it.
Someday LaBeouf will make a serious run at Oscar (it may even be this year for Honey Boy). Inevitably, The Peanut Butter Falcon will be one of the centerpieces of any tribute to the actor. The brilliant work he displays here fulfills the promise many had predicted for his career. Yet The Peanut Butter Falcon‘s excellence does not end with him, bringing several new talents into the limelight. The brilliant debut from Nilson and Schwartz should open doors for the filmmaking duo. It’s a rich film that deserves recognition as one of the best of the year.
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