“The Peanut Butter Falcon” entertained me in more than one way. While it is a typical Southern story clearly influenced by Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, it palpably vibrates with authentic local atmosphere as well as sweet personality, and I found myself often amused or touched as observing its main characters bouncing from one narrative point to another.
At the beginning, we meet a young man named Zak (Zack Gottsagen), who is mentally handicapped due to Down syndrome and has been in a facility for old people for a while because there is not any close family member to take care of him. The opening scene shows his latest escape attempt, and his motive turns out to be pretty simple and innocent; he has aspired to become a professional wrestler while frequently watching an old promotional video tape from a local wrestling star named the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and he really wants to go to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school someday.
Although his kind and sympathetic supervisor, a young woman named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), reminds him that he should stay in the facility as required by the state law, Zak is not deterred at all, and we soon see his another escape attempt assisted by Carl (Bruce Dern), an old dude who has been Zak’s roommate and is willing to help Zak have an opportunity to realize his innocent dream. During one night, Zak manages to escape through the barred window of their room, and then he runs away from the facility as far as he can.
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local lad who happens to get himself in a big trouble after clashing with a guy who takes over a river area where Tyler’s dead older brother used to catch fishes and crabs. Not long after he runs away from his trouble via a small motorboat, he finds Zak hiding in the motorboat, and Zak soon comes to accompany him although Tyler is not particularly eager to have Zak tag at his heels.
Of course, Tyler gradually comes to accept Zak as his journey companion – especially after coming to learn by coincidence that Zak is also on the run just like him. As spending more time with Zak, he teaches Zak a number of things including how to shoot, and Zak happily goes along with that while having more fun and freedom than before. During one amusing scene, they come across an eccentric blind old man who lets them build a boat in his backyard after baptizing both of them, and we soon see them joyously sailing on a big river.
Later in the story, Zak and Tyler are eventually found by Eleanor after their wild night, but then Eleanor comes to see that Zak deserves to have some more fun and get his wish. As accompanying Zak and Tyler during their ongoing journey to where the Salt Water Redneck lives, she comes to reveal more of herself, and, not so surprisingly, it does not take much time for her and Tyler to get closer to each other.
While the mood becomes a bit tense when Tyler faces the consequences of his impulsive action during its third act, the movie still maintains its leisurely narrative pacing as doling out small colorful moments as before, and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who previously made several short documentary films before making this first feature film of theirs, did a commendable job of establishing a vivid local atmosphere from the various Southern locations shown in their film. Thanks to their cinematographer Nigel Bluck, their film often shines with lyrical natural beauty coupled with that distinctive texture of the Southern areas, and the overall result evokes not only Twain’s aforementioned novel but also other idiosyncratic Southern literature works such as the ones written by William Faulkner.
When our three main characters eventually arrive at the destination of their journey, we already have a pretty good idea on what will happen next, and the movie does not surprise us much, but it still generates laughs and poignancy as making us root a lot for Zak, who does not hesitate at all in front a chance of lifetime and then goes all the way as, yes, the Peanut Butter Falcon. I must say that the finale demands some suspension of disbelief from us, but it mostly works thanks to good storytelling and performance, and then the movie gives its three main characters a neat and satisfying exit.
The main performers in the film are all convincing on the whole. While Shia LaBeouf surprises us as completely immersing himself into his shabby character without any misstep, Dakota Johnson, who has shown that she is as talented as, say, Kristen Stewart after drawing our attention with “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015), brings considerable warmth and personality to her seemingly thankless role, and Zack Gottsagen, a non-professional actor who does have Down syndrome, gives an unadorned but indelible performance as firmly holding the center between LaBeouf and Johnson. In addition, the movie assembles a bunch of engaging supporting performers around its three main performers, and Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, and Thomas Haden Church are reliable as usual in their small but substantial supporting roles.
Overall, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a little endearing film packed with goodies to be appreciated, and those good moments in the film have grown on me since I watched it at last night. Its journey is a little predictable, but it generates enough fun and charm as rolling and sailing around with its likable main characters, and I like that.