All 22-year-old Zak wants is to be a superstar professional wrestler. He spends his nights glued to the TV, watching old videotapes of his ring-ruling hero, The Saltwater Redneck, whose wrestling school Zak is desperate to attend.
There’s a problem, though: Zak (Zack Gottsagen in his feature debut) has Down syndrome and was abandoned by his family, left in the care of an Outer Banks nursing home, and has been deemed a flight risk by his stern but loving supervisor, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), after a failed escape attempt.
Equally at odds is fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), whose dishonest work tendencies have left him without a job and in the crosshairs of his vengeful peers. Still, he fails to sequester his volatile nature long enough to commit one last misdeed against his oppressors, forcing him to skip town.
Meanwhile, with the help of wizened roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak finally flees the nursing home, determined to reach the wrestling school on the southern tip of the Outer Banks. And when he and Tyler — who resolves to start anew in Florida — cross paths, they become reluctant wayward companions and go on to form the unlikeliest of bonds, all while Eleanor and a pair of vindictive fishermen tail them closely.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one of the most beautifully acted and directed movies to grace screens this year, taking what could have been a pandering, overly simplistic story and turning it into a raw look at the wounds left by prejudice and loss, and the power that love has to heal them. It’s also a showcase of budding, wide-eyed cinematic prowess, lovingly crafted by writing-directing team Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, whose previous work consists entirely of short films. Each frame glows with a sense of compassion for the film’s deeply flawed environment and the equally damaged people who fill it, not shying away from the ugliness of the story’s subject matter while also careful to point out the surprising amount of beauty that can burst through the cracks of a grimy façade.
The most impressive of first-timers on the call sheet is Gottsagen, whose uncanny comic timing and physical engagement with the material infuses Zak with an indelible sense of spirit. Where a lesser film would lean on Gottsagen solely as a source of optimistic cuteness, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” acknowledges the mistreatment, lack of opportunity and subsequent heartache people with intellectual disabilities face. It lets Zak be a layered, unpredictable character whose self-doubt rises to the surface quite often.
LaBeouf continues a career of taking downtrodden, pessimistic characters and making them wholly empathetic, a talent he previously showed off in 2003’s “Holes” and the underrated 2014 war drama “Fury.” From the first scene, Tyler is clearly depicted as a broken soul whose felonious antics are meant to compensate for a fragility fueled by unthinkable tragedy. His warmth leaks through when sharing the screen with Gottsagen and Johnson, making for a trio that feels impressively improvisational and all the more real for it.
While plenty of movies this year overstayed their welcome, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” has a rare quality of making you wish it won’t end. In fact, if there’s any one gripe to be had with this 97-minute film, it’s that it ends too abruptly. Sure, that’s for storytelling reasons — the third act feels quite rushed — but I can’t help but admit I wanted to bathe in the beautiful, familial energy that “The Peanut Butter Falcon” oozes for as long as I possibly could. That’s a feeling few films in 2019 have provided, and it’s one I’ll continue to chase as the year rounds out.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and a founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.