I have a soft spot in my heart for indie films mostly because they’re willing to go to places many mainstream projects will refuse to go in their attempt to bring a little bit of artistic and cultural appeal to the big screen. One of the most anticipated indie films for me personally in 2019 has been “The Peanut Butter Falcon” which made its debut in early August but only now has finally made its way onto a big screen in my region. I’ve had my eye on this picture for some time due mostly to its incredible cast and what many have called an accurate and respectful depiction of down syndrome in its main character. After its debut at South by Southwest in March “The Peanut Butter Falcon” quickly became a must-see picture of 2019 and has been considered one of the year’s highlight “feel good” films. Is it really worth the praise? Well, I’m here to share my thoughts. This is my review of “The Peanut Butter Falcon”.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” stars Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome in real life, as 22-year-old Zak who lives in a retirement home by government order due to his handicap. Zak longs to escape this life with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) who operates a school for aspiring wrestlers. When Zak manages to escape, he meets a troubled thief and fisherman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) who finds himself on the run after wronging a pair of fellow fishermen. Tyler, who seeks to reach Florida, reluctantly agrees to let Zak tag along and help him reach the wrestling school along the way. The two quickly form a bond while trying to avoid Zak’s caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who fears for Zak’s safety in the outside world. Together the three embark on a life-changing journey that challenges not only their individual resolves but also opens their eyes to the simple joys of life.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” lived up to pretty much every expectation I had going into it. A capable cast, some worthy themes, and focused and well-crafted filming all come together for a tightly packaged story that provides us with a fantastic piece of modern American fiction. Considering this film’s heavy focus on the friendship between a loner and a man with Down syndrome “The Peanut Butter Falcon” could have easily gone to extremes to drive home its plot, but thankfully it doesn’t. Everything about this movie feels perfectly balanced from the pacing to the character development to its portrayal of Down syndrome, and the result provides us with a fun adventure drama with a comedic edge that harkens back to countless American classic books and films of the past. Looking at the story specifically, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” clearly borrows from materials like Mark Twain’s famous “Huckleberry Finn” and yet it feels like an experience all its own that refuses to get lost in what it’s trying to say. Like the aforementioned novel, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” breaks down social barriers without ever feeling pretentious or overindulgent, saying exactly what it needs to say how it needs to be said.
Of course it also helps that the film brings in a real-life actor with Down syndrome in Zack Gottsagen who, like the character he plays, chooses to rise above the perceived limitations of his handicap staying who he is and portraying his condition with a sincere, often unforgiving look at the highs and lows that come with the syndrome. Zack’s willingness and ability to convey Down syndrome is not only brave and adds a great deal of legitimacy and credibility to the project but it also makes for some amusing improvised moments that are funny because of how innocent and, frankly, adorable they are and not because they are making light of the condition. That innocence is balanced by equally sincere performances by the underrated Shia LaBeouf, who continues to show he’s much more than the “Transformers” franchise led people to believe, and Dakota Johnson, who also rises above her most famous franchise “Fifty Shades of Gray”, with both performers providing very human, if slightly downplayed companions that help Zak on his journey and thus encounter life-changing revelations of their own. One of the biggest themes of the film sees both of their characters come to realize that there’s much more to Zak than his handicap and that because of his condition Zak may have a better grasp on what makes life worth living than either of them do with what society would consider normally functioning brains and personalities.
That’s really what this movie is at its core, a lesson to the viewers and the characters that life is what you make of it regardless of what cards you’re handed to play with. All three main characters have to overcome something that’s holding them back. In addition to Zak’s obvious handicap, LaBeouf’s Tyler and Johnson’s Eleanor have each suffered tragic loses in their past which have led them down roads where they seem to have forgotten the simple joys of life. Their combined journies makes for an engaging story that’s sweet, memorable and fun without really ever reaching shmaltzy territory. As I said before it’s a film that finds a perfect balance between saying what it needs to say and telling a touching story that many people can relate to in one form or another without it ever feeling too preachy. The fact that the story follows a brisk but controlled pace means “The Peanut Butter Falcon” rarely slows down or feels tediously boring as the journey rolls on.
Probably it’s one big flaw is that at times the story can get bogged down by Tyler’s attempts to escape a pair of fishermen who he wronged (one of which is played by John Hawkes) who become the closest things to true villains this movie has to offer. I walked out not minding having these characters in the story seeing at they do help drive Tyler’s transformative journey, but I also didn’t feel they were truly needed to make this a good film. There were many ways that Tyler and Zak could have come together on their own and while having a pair of villains does up the stakes it doesn’t always jive with the tone or core story and themes of the film. These villains don’t take away from the film, but they do feel like add-ons and clichés to help add some conflict to a story that didn’t necessarily need anything extra to make it worth experiencing. It might have made this genuinely good film even better if Tyler and Zak got to know each other without the added conflict drawing them together and there were ways that Tyler’s growth could have been handled without giving him opponents he had to outsmart in the process.
With that said, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is an amazing modern American fairytale that captures a classic and bygone style of storytelling and adapts it to a modern tale of tolerance, friendship and finding the true joy of life. It’s not too much to call this one of the year’s most heartwarming feel-good movies and while it does conform to a few unneeded clichés “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is still an engaging and fun adventure dramedy that takes you on a journey you won’t soon forget. It respects what it has to say enough to keep things simple while still getting its point across clearly and has a great amount of consideration for the portrayal of Down syndrome with great performers on hand to sell everything in just the right way. It’s a shame movies like this are considered to be the outliers in the art of cinema because I feel like this is the kind of story the world needs right now. Well written, well-acted, and well crafted “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a gem that I highly suggest you take the time to appreciate if you get the chance.