Directed by Tyler Nilson, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a giddy story in the tradition of “Huckleberry Finn” centering on a young adult Zack with Down’s Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen), who wants to be a professional entertainment wrestler.
Though the story is buoyant and cheerful it does not sweeten or sentimentalize its narrative. The action is brisk and entertaining while every character is whole and impacting. To its credit, the film never feels maudlin or sappy.
Zack hates the institutional home where he lives. His friend Carl (Bruce Dern) urges him to escape once and to continue with his dream to reach a wrestling school run by The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church).
Zack, oiled with soap, pushes through some bent security bars. The effect is akin to a delightful Popeye cartoon.
Zack hides in a boat owned by scofflaw fisherman Tyler (Shia LeBeouf) just as he is trying to evade two other fishermen (John Hawkes and the rapper Yelawolf) who are bent on revenge.
Tyler is bewildered by the stowaway but doesn’t have the heart to refuse him. Zack just wants company (and some directional aid) until he gets to The Saltwater Redneck.
Health aide Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is on the hunt to find Zack, but he is defiant; refusing to give up and return.
After all, who would?
This film is a genuine adventure without a trace of any saccharine feeling. Gottsagen delivers in a debut that is never artificial or Disneyesque. His acting has discipline and heart. Like all successful actors, Gottsagen feels at ease in his role. Better still, LeBeouf and Johnson are skillfully understated. This is easily Johnson’s best outing.
This is not a film about a young man with Down’s Syndrome, but a tale about a man with a dream while society tries to impose its ideas and limitations. This is a rebel story with every character making their own definition of how life works.
Though irrepressibly entertaining and colorful, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” never trivializes its characters or its subject. It is full of feeling and humor and is gratefully human in the best of senses.
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