It’s unlikely that The Peanut Butter Falcon’s impact on the box office, or the collective consciousness, will be huge, but it’s sure to be beloved by those who make the effort to seek it out; the kind of film you delight in recommending to friends in years to come, as their faces scrunch up in confusion at the name. It is simple, but very, very lovely.
Its two leads could not be more different. Zak Gottsagen, who has Down’s syndrome, plays Zak, who is living in a retirement home in North Carolina, despite being only 22. He’s cared for kindly, mainly by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), but is desperately bored, passing his time watching vintage wrestling videos and plotting ways to escape. One bid for freedom actually works and Zak manages to hide in the back of a boat, which belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman but also a thief who has crossed the wrong people.
Where Gottsagen is open-hearted and earnest, LaBeouf is twitchy and chaotic. They complement each other beautifully, suggesting a real, increasingly powerful bond as they go on the run, one from those who want to protect him and the other from those who want to kill him. Gottsagen is an unknown quantity giving a soulful debut, but LaBeouf turns in one of his best performances in a spotty career. He can be almost uncomfortable to watch in roles that don’t give him a proper emotional grounding, piling up lots of unnecessary tics, but here he is given a deep, troubled character to inhabit and he does it with raw, loveable energy.
First time directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz set a pace that suits the balmy North Carolina setting, where the sun is always hazy and you can almost feel the bugs flitting in the air. While this may be a movie about two men on the run, that overstates their level of action. It’s more about two guys living lives they didn’t entirely choose and don’t really want to accept, hanging out and willing each other on to something more. It quietly builds up to an emotional punch that wallops surprisingly hard. It’s one of the year’s best indie surprises.