The true power of a movie comes in its ability to make you feel something. That’s why we watch them. We want to feel, whether it’s chills, thrills, amusement or even heartbreak. The more a film makes me feel, the more successful I deem it.
This makes “The Peanut Butter Falcon” pretty successful, for me at least. It’s the story of a young man with Down syndrome named Zach (Zach Gottsagen), who dreams of being a professional wrestler. He’s in his early 20s, but he lives in a retirement home. He has no family, and the state doesn’t know what to do with him, so they’ve tucked him away. He and his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), are friends, although they have little in common. Zach drives Carl insane by playing an infomercial on VHS over and over again.
The video features Zach’s favorite wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who talks about the wrestling school he runs in Aiden, North Carolina. Zach has to go, attempting to run away from the nursing home more than once.
One night, he succeeds.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is also the story of Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman with a penchant for trouble and theft. A runaway Zach ends up on Tyler’s getaway boat after the latter destroys thousands of dollars of equipment that belongs to the fisherman Tyler was stealing from in the first place. The two form an unlikely alliance as they both go on the run, trying to escape their past and their demons. Tyler’s pushed people too far and likely will be killed if he’s caught, and Zach, well, it’s back to the old folks’ home — or worse — for him. Tyler agrees to help Zach make it to the wrestling school, where he plans to drop him off as he continues on to Florida.
Thrown into this mix, although unnecessarily, is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a volunteer/social worker at the retirement home where Zach lived. She’s been tasked with bringing him home and also becomes a love interest for Tyler. In some ways, I can see the benefit of adding this character, but honestly, Tyler and Zach have an incredible story that is more than enough to fill the run time.
In fact, the film is at its strongest when we get long stretches with Zach and Tyler. They’re both crazy stubborn and both desperately in need of someone to fill a void. Zach’s spent his life being called “retard” and treated as if he’s ignorant. Aside from Carl and Eleanor, he has no one who has ever cared for him. Tyler lost his older brother (played in flashbacks by Jon Bernthal), and he doesn’t have a direction. He doesn’t have a purpose. His life is dark, and it’s empty. When he torched the equipment, he also burned every bridge he’d ever crossed.
Together, Zach and Tyler find what they’ve been missing. In Tyler, Zach finds the first person in his life who sees him as a human, rather than an invalid, and treats him with respect ... eventually. They don’t really hit it off at first. And in Zach, Tyler finds someone who makes him care again, not only about other people, but himself.
See, Eleanor really isn’t necessary. I don’t know that I can say she lessens the story, but she certainly doesn’t add anything special to what’s already there.
A lot of folks have compared “The Peanut Butter Falcon” to a Mark Twain story. After all, Zach and Tyler do go floating down the Outer Banks of North Carolina, having adventures. And, maybe you could even say the odd couple dynamic isn’t anything new. But, there’s something special here. Maybe it’s the fact Gottsagen, who’s dreamed of being an actor for years, finally got his big break. (“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is his first role, and he actually inspired the writers to create this character and this story.)
Maybe it’s the fact LaBeouf turns in a solid performance of which I didn’t know he was capable. Past experiences with him in “Transformers” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which many of us try to forget, mean solid acting and strong performances aren’t something you expect. But, I loved his chemistry with LeBeouf. They were funny, heartrending and brought pure joy to the screen.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” takes viewers on an adventure. It makes us think, and it makes us feel. If you’re like me, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll be glad you took a chance on a Shia LaBeouf movie.