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As long as there are highways and byways to traverse, it’s hard to imagine audiences will ever grow tired of a good old-fashioned road story. Provided, that is, that we’re traveling in good company. With the new PG-13 indie The Peanut Butter Falcon, we unquestionably are.
Leaning in to the Mark Twain comparisons it will inevitably draw, the film tells the story of two unlikely friends who set off on a winding odyssey along the back roads of the coastal Southeast. Jawing, cavorting, and fleeing from trouble, they sail through scenic deltas and trek across barrier islands where they meet a host of quirky locals—some allies, some enemies.
Each young man is running from something. Twenty-two-year-old Zak has Down syndrome and chafes at the strict rules of the elder care facility in which the state has placed him. Even though his caretaker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), is as understanding and affectionate with him as she is with all her charges, he’s not an old man. He has a whole life to live, and he wants the freedom to choose how to live it. Namely, he wants to be a professional wrestler. He escapes out of a window to make his way to the wrestling school of his idol, the mysterious Salt Water Redneck.
From there he crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled young drifter who’s fallen afoul of a crew of violent fishermen. If all this sounds like it has the makings of a treacly Hallmark melodrama, don’t worry. The unsentimental script doesn’t talk down to the cast or to us. Plus, it’s too funny for that. A blind man who insists on baptizing the pair before he’ll help them does seem to miss some finer points of theology, but as anyone who’s lived in the Deep South can attest, the scene isn’t exactly caricature.
The movie includes some rough language, particularly from Tyler. But it doesn’t feel gratuitous, since his language does at least tell us something about the character’s background and harsh life that differentiates him from Zak and Eleanor, who don’t speak as he does. We know he’s grown up in poverty and has to fend for himself. We know he’s suffered loss and done things he’s ashamed of. We know he still doesn’t make the wisest choices, yet his dirtiness and crudity don’t make him less valuable as a person. And neither does Zak’s extra chromosome. (Parents should be aware that Zak initially goes on the lam in his underwear, although this aspect is played for comedy.)
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a quiet film at times, yet thanks to gorgeous cinematography and incredible performances from the two lead actors, it’s never boring.
LaBeouf’s reputation for off-screen antics can sometimes overshadow how talented he is. As with his similar role in Fury, he breaks our heart for Tyler with a few restrained expressions and gestures. These whispers of loneliness and self-loathing are all the more affecting for their subtlety. He and the filmmakers trust us to understand why Tyler needs to be a kind of brother to Zak—why he needs this chance to prove to himself that he can be a good guy—without spelling it out with a big, weepy meltdown.
We get an equally layered character with Zak. Full of his own contradictions and doubts, he isn’t just there to provide lessons to Tyler and Eleanor on how to be a better person. He has his own growing to do, and actor Zack Gottsagen crafts a leading man who is alternately insecure, hilarious, and gutsy.
We live in a culture that too often treats the most glorious creation in the universe—a human being—as disposable. The Peanut Butter Falcon reminds us that whatever our backgrounds or challenges, we all shine with God’s beauty.