It used to be that when you'd head down to your neighborhood cinema on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon, you'd fork over your five or six bucks in eager anticipation of a couple hours of meaningful storytelling or simple, escapist entertainment or, just perhaps, because you simply wanted to feel better about life leaving the movie theater than you did when you walked in.
Oh sure, there's still movies that have meaning and films that leave you feeling better by the time the closing credits roll around. But, let's be honest, these days we're all more likely to stand in line for the latest Marvel mega-creation or the latest techno-wizardry or the latest blood n' guts freakshow.
Feeling good? Well, that's rather quaint. Ya' know?
The Peanut Butter Falcon is the kind of movie that I remember falling in love with as a teenage boy first falling in love with the wonderful world of cinema. It's the kind of film that I would spend my entire allowance on because I knew these characters understood my feelings and I knew that by the end of the film I would end up feeling less alone and an awful lot better about life.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is the kind of film I loved as a child and, yes, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a film that I loved as I sat there in the movie theater immersed in a world that felt simultaneously far away and yet incredibly familiar. It's a film with characters that I cared about, I still care about, and it's a film that, even in its most formulaic moments, I absolutely adored from beginning to end. While I may be a little hard-pressed to call The Peanut Butter Falcon one of the best films of the year, it is, without question, one of my absolutely favorite films of the year.
Newcomer Zack Gottsagen will be familiar to those who caught the runaway critical and audience darling feature doc Bulletproof, a rather magnificent film about the folks at Zeno Mountain Farm and the world(s) that they've created for actors with disabilities.
If you've never seen the documentary, go watch it now.
Wasn't it awesome?
Gottsagen is a 22-year-old actor with Down Syndrome, though refreshingly The Peanut Butter Falcon isn't about Down Syndrome or an actor with Down Syndrome or, for that matter, even a character with Down Syndrome. It just so happens that, hey, The Peanut Butter Falcon has a character named Zak who happens to have Down Syndrome.
He's awesome. He's awesome AND he has Down Syndrome. Those two things peacefully co-exist, ya' know?
In the film, Zak is a ward of the state and the state in question has relegated him to living in a skilled nursing facility because it's the only residential the state has supposedly capable of providing the care that he "needs."
Zak ain't exactly happy about it. He's looked after by the compassionate but bureaucratic Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and cared for by at least a few of his fellow residents including his rather cantankerous roommate (Bruce Dern), who knows along with the rest of us in the audience that Zak has no business being in this nursing facility and his dream of studying pro wrestling with longtime idol "The Saltwater Redneck" (Thomas Haden Church) isn't just some far-fetched fantasy.
It could happen. It should happen.
So, one night that cantankerous roommate helps Zak escape the confines of his over-restrictive nursing home and make a run for it. After running all night, he rests for a spell inside a tarped up small boat owned, unknown to Zak, by one Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is running away in his own way from an equally perilous fate.
The two are mismatched, of course, but if you're thinking this is where you'll start getting nothing but endless buddy flick cliche's then you should think again. While there's certainly formula to be found inside this narrative feature debut from co-writers/directors Mike Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, The Peanut Butter Falcon possesses only the kinds of formulas that we know and love and yet infuses them with such heart and authenticity that you'll find yourself quickly forgiving the film's few familiar twists and turns including, unfortunately, an unnecessary romantic element for the already underdeveloped yet wonderfully performed Dakota Johnson's Eleanor.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is an immersive, joy-filled cinematic work of wonder, the kind of film that makes you feel better than you have in hours and days and weeks and months.
To be honest, I've never been a huge Shia LaBeouf fan. It's not so much because of his seemingly endless array of headline grabbing behaviors but, quite simply, because I've always felt like Hollywood just had no clue whatsoever to actually do with him. He's always seemed to be on the edge of a critical breakthrough, but he's just never quite broken through.
Shia LaBeouf breaks through here.
While LaBeouf earned an Independent Spirit nod for his turn in American Honey, it's his work here that is easily the best of his career. It's a weird and wonderful combination of both deep, and I mean really deep, authenticity and the kind of vulnerable acting that LaBeouf has seemingly always shied away from. LaBeouf has always seemed like he was wearing a mask to keep away even the audiences, yet in The Peanut Butter Falcon LaBeouf surrenders with absolutely magnificent results to the world of Tyler the rebellious, running away misfit who really needs Zak as much, if not more, than Zak needs him. However, the real beauty of the story is how much they simply need each other.
And don't you dare call Gottsagen that "Down Syndrome actor," a condescending and wholly inaccurate labeling that doesn't begin to describe his utterly compelling and authentic work as Zak, a fiercely determined and eternally optimistic young man whose heart has to be a fair amount bigger than yours or mine. Kudos to both Schwartz and Nilson for insisting, fervently, on authentic casting for the film and for their persistent demand that Gottsagen be cast. I bow before both of you.
It's no secret that the disability community is often left out whenever Hollywood speaks about inclusionary practices, an absurd exclusion when one considers that nearly 20% of the U.S. population is known to have some form of disability. Instead of casting authentically, we get inspiration porn Oscar bait material by able-bodied actors who give flawed performances that nearly anyone who has a disability or is familiar with disability can realize.
I mean, I'm still cringing about that Me Before You crapfest.
When actors with disabilities do get cast, they are too often relegated to playing only their disability or other cheesy stereotypes. From beginning to end, Zack Gottsagen's Zak is a young man with Down Syndrome whose Down Syndrome is an integral part of who he is but doesn't begin to define his identity.
Zack is, well, Zak.
The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn't condescend or overly sympathize or infantilize or turn Down Syndrome into this world of shiny happy people dancing.
Lensing by Nigel Bluck is filled with simple, panoramic shots across barren benches and gritty, natural shots by ole' dirt roads. It feels real and honest and deepens the honesty of everything that unfolds here alongside Gabrael Wilson's magnificent production design. The film's original music also is stellar from beginning to end.
While The Peanut Butter Falcon undeniably belongs to Gottsagen and LaBeouf, the film's supporting cast, many of whom also banded together to help make sure this film was made, are truly top notch. Dakota Johnson takes an overly simplified role on paper and turns Eleanor into a fully complex, compelling woman. Bruce Dern and John Hawkes are also stand-outs.
In addition to several festival awards, The Peanut Butter Falcon picked up the Truly Moving Picture Award from Indy's own Heartland Film and once you see the film, and you WILL see the film, you'll completely understand why.
It's hard to say if The Peanut Butter Falcon will end up making my list of the year's ten best films, though there's simply no question that when the end of the year comes around this will be a film that I'll reflect on as one of my absolute favorites and a film that I'll find myself watching over and over again.
Being distributed by indie distributor Roadside Attractions, The Peanut Butter Falcon begins its limited nationwide release this weekend and one can only hope that it reaches the wide audience that it truly deserves.
Now, seriously. Go see The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic