‘I’ ON CULTURE
A small film with the weird name The Peanut Butter Falcon has meandered into theaters this week. Meander is the proper word. Borrowing heavily from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, it is a charming tale of a trip made by three rather strange, although charming characters. And it is the trip that is important, not the clearly hopped up “feel good” ending.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen, from Boynton Beach, by the way) has Down syndrome. The “state,” clearly the real villain of the whole piece, has decided that even though he is a young adult, he is not able to take care of himself, and they put him into an assisted-living facility for the elderly, where he is really isolated. He dreams of escape and manages to do just that.
Zak soon runs into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), also on the run because, having had a fight with a bunch of goons led by fellow fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes), he set a fire, destroying all the expensive equipment of the group. After running into Zak, they begin their travels together. Their relationship is the heart of this movie, although eventually Eleanor joins them.
The “meet cute” scene is lovely. First Eleanor meets Tyler in a gas station asking about Zak, which leads to a bit of confrontation. Later, Eleanor walks up to Tyler by a beach in North Carolina and again asks about Zak. On their own, it is clear, everyone is rather empty inside. Eleanor has given her all to caretaking a large number of people without really getting close to any of them, and Tyler has not been close to anyone since the death of his brother.
Our little group goes through a series of adventures heading for a pro wrestling school that Zak saw while watching old VHS tapes at the old age home. They finally find the old-time wrestler, Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), only to find that things are not what they seem. And then writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz create a really fake happy ending.
That is the big flaw of the film. Most of the film is absolutely charming; there are a series of small-scale interactions that really fill in huge amounts of the characterizations. The people, particularly Zak and Tyler, seem very real. And had they been able to come up with a good ending, we could almost have had a classic, or at least a near one. Instead, instead of soaring, it just lands in the muck with a thud.
LaBeouf is better than usual. For a change, he’s not sleepwalking through a role. His face, battered by years of excess, works well as Tyler. There are reports that he behaved so badly during the shooting of the film that Gottsagen sat him down and told him that while LaBeouf would likely be in many more films, this was almost certainly the young man’s only chance. He reportedly begged him to behave. And, one way or another, this worked. The relationship between the two men is exquisitely drawn in a series of very small steps. As noted earlier, the film meanders; it takes its time to build the relationship. Johnson is OK. Her part is not as well fleshed out as the two men, unfortunately. She’s a bit too pigeon-holed as “mommy substitute” and “potential lover.” But there is some real chemistry between her and LaBeouf, and that works nicely.
Gottsagen steals the film, however. Yes, he does have Down syndrome, which adds the realism necessary, but he also has a winning personality. If he was not sympathetic, if we didn’t care all that much, the film would be really sad. But he carries off his part brilliantly. He might be right; there may not be more roles for him. And that would be a shame.
I also liked Bruce Dern in a small role as Zak’s co-conspirator for his escape from the old age home.
This is a charming movie, a real change from many of the films that come out during the summer filled with special effects and comic book characters. We get to feel for these people. If the ending is too contrived, well, that does not take away the really fun parts of the ride. I enjoyed the film; you will probably enjoy it as well.