Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen are a modern-day Tom and Huck in the Mark Twain inspired “The Peanut Butter Falcon” from writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Brimming with adventure and spirit, the film’s renowned cast is overshadowed by newcomer Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome who is cleared to make history with a performance that’s sure to melt a few hearts. Expect lots of laughs, some tender moments and a sense of danger that gives the sleeper hit an edge.
Zak (Gottsagen) lives in a senior care facility in North Carolina. He’s fairly young but with no family or home, the 22-year-old with Down syndrome has become a responsibility of the state. He shares a room with retired engineer Carl (a wonderful Bruce Dern) and watched over by caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
Zak’s dream is to become a professional wrestler like his idol The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who runs a wrestling school in the lower part of the state. In the meantime, and much to Carl’s disinclination, Zak studies his idol’s moves by continuously watching an old VHS tape.
Tyler (LaBeouf) works as a fisherman along the Outer Banks who is still mourning the death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal seen in flashbacks). His rivalry with another local fisherman Duncan (John Wakes) escalates over some crab traps and a few unscrupulous moves by Tyler.
The film quickly becomes an outlaw buddy picture as Zak escapes from the nursing home (with the help of Carl’s ingenuity) and Tyler makes a run for it in his boat with Duncan and his crony Ratboy (Yelawolf) in hot pursuit. The two fugitives cross paths after Tyler discovers Zak hiding under a canopy in his boat and from here, their Twain-inspired adventure begins.
There is undeniable chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen who became close friends while filming. That bond is evident in a few emotional scenes as Zak trails along while Tyler makes his way towards Florida.
At first, Tyler doesn’t want anything to do with Zak but he eventually becomes a surrogate brother to the 22-year-old as he agrees to help him get to The Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school, which just happens to be along the way.
Meanwhile, Eleanor has been dispatched by the nursing home to find Zak before he’s reported missing to the state and eventually, she crosses paths with Tyler and Zak making for some great entertainment as the three actors feed off each other.
What’s impressive about the film is how it all came together and how well it turned out despite the hurdles faced by first-time writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. The two met Gottsagen at an acting camp for people with disabilities where he was a teacher.
The talented and funny actor made a big impression on the duo who then wrote “The Peanut Butter Falcon” for Zack who had never appeared in a feature film. But funding for the project was slow until Nilson and Schwartz shot a fake trailer for the film to give producers a taste of what they were attempting to accomplish. With a dream cast featuring LaBeouf, Johnson, Hawkes and Dern on board it soon became both an onscreen and offscreen fable.
LaBeouf recently bared his soul for the autobiographical “Honey Boy” in theaters now. Here, the actor once again delivers a sincere performance that confirms he is one of the most underrated actors of our time. That can also be said for Johnson who delivers a wonderful performance.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a magical film that could easily slide under the radar of much bigger Hollywood films. You don’t want to miss this gem of a feature. It’s a breakthrough performance and amazing debut by Gottsagen in the sleeper hit of 2019.