FOUR STARS Two men become unlikely friends. One has Down Syndrome and dreams of becoming a wrestler.
Shia LaBeouf, Zachary Gottsagen
You know with a title like this that you’re in good hands. Crafted with care and humour by writer/directors Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is one of those rare buddy movies that charms with its authenticity and is authentically charming. There may be nothing especially new about the overarching narrative, you’ve seen variations on this theme before. However it succeeds in the telling because of the undeniable chemistry between leads Shia LaBeouf (TRANSFORMERS) and Zack Gottsagen. Without them it would be passable entertainment. With them, it’s an absolute treat.
Tyler (LaBeouf) lives in the South and has neither enough work nor enough money. On the run after a revenge altercation involving arson he meets Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome. He’s also outside the law, having escaped a retirement home where authorities had placed him ‘in care’. The two men begin a Tom Sawyer styled journey down river in the hope (at least in Zak’s mind) of meeting Zak’s hero - faded wrestling star Saltwater Redneck whom he idolises. Meanwhile empathetic Eleanor from the retirement home is in pursuit.
As with any good buddy movie, these polar opposites learn a little from one another as they settle into a new life together. It’s never going to last of course, Tyler knows that, we know that. But it’s the journey where find the joy, not the destination. It’s something Wilson and Schwartz utterly comprehend as well. Their task is to avoid the pitfalls and clichés of the genre while tiptoeing around the morass of schmaltz (or weirdness) that plots featuring a character with Down Syndrome usually incur. It’s to Gottsagen’s credit as well for his Zak is neither of those things. He brings such lively unpredictability to the role that it undercuts any intended sentimentality while keeping an improvising LaBeouf on his toes.
There’s a hint of RAIN MAN in the warmth and generosity of their relationship, but without the synthetic hardness of Hoffman’s performance. LaBeouf and Gottsagen are much richer, and more interesting as a result. Riffing on a 1996 Belgian film, Wilson and Schwartz built their story around Gottsagen who’s been studying his craft since he was three. Although they could have hired any number of Hollywood names for the role of Zak, they didn’t, and THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is far, far better for it. As with A FANTASTIC WOMAN, it showcases just how much richer the cinematic experience becomes when diversity and authenticity, not Scarlett Johansson’s fame, drive the casting department.