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Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

Kezia Deakin reviews the coming of age that offers a very different take on the classic road trip film

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Image Credit: Signature Entertainment

Director: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church
Length: 1hr 37m
Rating: 12A

The Peanut Butter Falcon opens to a retirement home resident unhappy with his current situation. It’s not the classic story of a pensioner apprehensive to lose their independence: the protagonist is only twenty-two. He dreams of becoming a pro-wrestler, but because he has Down’s Syndrome, the state has put him in residential care as the most convenient solution. Zak runs away and into Tyler – a troubled crab trawler – who begrudgingly agrees to train him up and guide him to Wrestling School. They travel down the State through the waterways with Zak’s old nursing home counsellor and some crab trawlers Tyler has wronged hot on their heels.

It’s a classic boyish adventure reminiscent of Mark Twain, seeing the characters walking through train tracks, balancing on bales of hay, and meeting various odd characters whilst using various odd means to get around, including a raft they build. However, the film adds new dimension to this often too simplistic trope in the gun toting disgruntled fishermen chasing Tyler down; and the moral dilemma Eleanor introduces on how best to treat those with Down’s Syndrome without smothering them. There’s also the emotional turmoil Tyler is going through, still grieving after his brother’s death, but gradually understanding that his fraternal love can be passed onto Zak.

Tyler Nilson, who both directed and wrote, used to be an adventurer exploring the seas of the South Pacific and this first-hand experience seems to have helped him construct a sense of real-life adventure in the film. Nilson’s previous work as a hand model and his appreciation of overhead surfing shots also encouraged him to use overhead shots as a stylistic technique. This paid off massively in improving the background of the movie and adding to the metaphor of the world opening up for Zak. An overhead shot I particularly enjoyed was where Tyler uses a rope to guide Zak across the water and a boat almost severs the line and Zak himself.

The background of the film is a refreshing change in a retreat to nature I have not personally known. Set in Georgia, the marshes and rivers provide more variety than the urban backgrounds which tend to dominate films nowadays. The bluegrass music incorporated into the soundtrack also accompanies the scenery well. Michael Schwartz, who also directed and wrote, explains in an interview with The Playlist that they constructed the movie after picking out Zack as an actor. They chose the Outer Banks of North Carolina as they knew they could shoot without permits there and use their friends’ boats for free. For Schwartz and Nilson, this is their biggest film yet and there’s something about its makeshift, underdog production which is very fitting with the characters the film portrays.

I didn’t find Dakota Johnson’s character, Eleanor, particularly compelling. Initially, what turned me off her was how unrealistic her plot was. In an effort to prevent reporting Zak’s disappearance to the State, Eleanor’s boss sends her to find him. She then takes the retirement home van (I guess trips are off for the week) and enters a wild goose chase, driving through Georgia, somehow staying on the right track with only one person giving her a clue. This lasts days and I can’t see a reasonable person, as Eleanor is portrayed to be, not turning to the police relatively quickly. Overall, she seemed a little too much like a plot device than a character: there to show the conflict of interest between keeping those with mental disabilities safe without restricting them; her dialogue existing just so Tyler could expose the idiocy of her ideas. I understand the tension of her character: to bulk up the antagonistic side of the movie which was somewhat lacking, but it fell short.

The movie has a satisfying, if a little wishful, ending, causing you to cheer along with Zak as he finds one of his big dreams fulfilled. “I’m not as broken as some made me out to be”, is sung as the credits are rolled and seems to be a perfect summation of the movie. Two men: Zak labelled broken by society for his mental disability but actually broken down by his restricted life and Tyler broken by his brother’s death both healing through having an adventure and forming a family between them.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a feel-good movie, somewhat lacking in proper antagonists, but bound to make you smile with witty one liners and a sense of real love and  adventure in nature. It also sparks a conversation about how we should help those with Down’s Syndrome to keep them safe whilst also not restricting their lives to a shared room in a retirement home.

Editor's note: this film was screened at City Screen York.

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