“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is such a modern-day Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn story that a character can’t help but avowedly acknowledge its Mark Twain derivation at one point.
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“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is such a modern-day Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn story that a character can’t help but avowedly acknowledge its Mark Twain derivation at one point. Spawned from the marshlands of North Carolina and spanning the Outer Banks, this simple, yet charming parable is about two outcasts finding companionship with each other and purpose in their mutual quests for fulfillment. Both are inhibited by constraints — one’s self-imposed, and the other’s a product of parturition and prejudice. Their forced friendship doesn’t extinguish their handicaps, but it finally affords both the means to transcend them.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has spent his entire life confined to institutions due to his Down Syndrome. Devoid of any apparent family, he’s now a young adult consigned to living among the elderly patients in a Dare County assisted living facility. Zak constantly concocts schemes to flee south in order to realize his cockeyed dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Zak’s lone source of entertainment is constantly watching a VHS tape starring a wrestler going by the moniker of The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who runs a wrestling school in the Outer Banks hamlet of Avon. Zak promises his compassionate but exasperated counselor Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) that he’ll behave, but with the help of his mischievous roommate (Bruce Dern), Zak slips through the bars covering his bedroom window and runs away at night wearing nothing but his underwear.
Zak literally runs into the troubled Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a bedraggled and unlicensed crab boat fisherman who draws the ire of a couple of competitors (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) for poaching their traps. When Tyler retaliates by setting fire to their equipment — and with it the entire Manteo marina—he motors off to escape violent reprisals, with Zak an unwitting stowaway.
Tyler and Zak form an uneasy bond, both bound by a desire to escape their misfortunes. Flashbacks hint at a tragic episode in Tyler’s past for which he suffered blame and a downward spiral. Today, Tyler hopes to skirt the law and resettle in Jupiter, Florida, while Zak’s single-minded focus is reaching the wrestling school — they even come up with Zak’s titular stage name. Throughout the episodic narrative, Tyler and Zak encounter sundry misadventures. They’re nearly rammed by a fishing boat while crossing a river. While trying to pilfer a skiff, they’re nearly shot by an old blind, black homeowner, who later regales them with scripture and gifts them a raft (the analog to Jim in Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”). When Eleanor finally catches up to Tyler and Zak (just ahead of the fishermen hunting Tyler), she becomes an accidental companion on their odyssey and begins to see Zak as more than a helpless patient.
Manteo native and co-director Tyler Nilson captures the bucolic beauty and backwater isolation of his coastal milieu (actual filming took place in the Savannah delta area of Georgia), a scenic backdrop that serves as one of the film’s primary characters. But the earnest acting is what really propel “Peanut Butter Falcon.” LaBeouf has earned a checkered reputation since his child actor origins; indeed, he was arrested for disorderly conduct in Savannah during the 2017 production of this film. But his interpretation of Tyler is genuine and sympathetic. Tyler isn’t very congenial, but LaBeouf slowly allows his new friends — and the audience — to see his heart.
The paucity of Zak’s dialogue only increases its impact, and Gottsagen hits all the right emotional notes in a terrific and touching performance. Even Johnson shines, playing Eleanor as a woman truly struggling between her sense of empathy and her faith in a system to which she’s trained and dedicated.
The journey reaches its flashpoint in Avon and finding Salt Water with his backyard, makeshift troupe, played by actual pro wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake Roberts. It’s a climax that blends farce, fantasy, sacrifice and triumph. The overly tidy ending feels like those re-engineered after a test audience reaction. The denouncement notwithstanding, “The Peanut Butter Falcon’s” pitch-perfect casting and rustic setting lend its familiar tale an edginess that somehow both offsets and enhances its inherent sweetness.