‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ Review: Big Dreams and Possible Big Trouble

This movie is rife with name actors: Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Shia LaBeouf, Thomas Haden Church. But its writer-directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, conceived and executed it as a vehicle for a performer making his debut as a lead actor.

Zack Gottsagen plays Zak, a young man with no family who lives in an old-age home in North Carolina. Zak has Down syndrome, and while the state has deemed that he needs constant care, there’s no appropriately specialized facility available to him. So he stays with some feisty seniors, several of whom he’s befriended. Those pals help him plan escapes, most of which fail. But one finally succeeds, and off Zak goes, wearing nothing but white briefs. He’s in search of a wrestling school run by a figure known as the Salt Water Redneck. Zak’s main caretaker, a volunteer named Eleanor (Johnson), is understandably appalled by this development.

Zak’s subsequent adventure is a picaresque-humanist one, filled with relatively commonplace plot turns. He hides out in a boat owned by Tyler (LaBeouf), a hard-up fisherman still mourning the death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal in flashbacks) and making trouble with the local crab men, who will soon seek violent payback. Will Tyler find a new brother in Zak? Will Zak finally get into the ring, care of the Salt Water Redneck, and introduce his own wrestling persona, the Peanut Butter Falcon? (There are cameos from real-life wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake Roberts, albeit in mufti.).

The clichés in this movie are enacted in a good cause. Gottsagen, who is in his early 30s, has Down syndrome himself and the filmmakers crafted “The Peanut Butter Falcon” specifically for him. Zak takes frequent pratfalls and is often seen in various un-self-conscious states of undress, but the movie never makes him a figure of fun. Neither, by the same token, does it try to wrench sentimental tears out of his condition. They make his character a little guy with a big heart, and big dreams — you’ve heard of such figures, I suppose — and let him have his hero’s journey.

Which is, yes, predictable. But I suspect almost nobody who sees “The Peanut Butter Falcon” will mind much. Along with the cinematographer, Nigel Bluck, and the editors, Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller, the directors achieve a relaxed and amiable vibe while moving the story forward with dispatch through picturesque Southern Atlantic land and seascapes.

And Gottsagen is a disarming performer who creates a sweet and funny character. As storytellers, Nilson and Schwartz are careful to cover their bases — an early reference to Eleanor being a woman of independent means helps the film’s finale go down easier, plausibility-wise — but the center of their film is completely without contrivance.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Rated PG-13 for pratfalls, shenanigans, language. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.

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