People often look down on sweetness in movies. If a film’s primary tone is that of sentiment, it is often dismissed briskly as a frivolous exercise in schmaltz with nothing to say. With that in mind, it’s a delight to see that The Peanut Butter Falcon, which arrives in UK cinemas this week, has already become something of a sleeper hit in the USA. It’s a pleasant, big-hearted film that tells a tale of friendship against the odds.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down Syndrome, who is living in an old people’s home in order to receive the help he needs from carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). He is desperate to escape in order to visit the North Carolina training school of his professional wrestling idol Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whom he watches on a videotape multiple times per day. One night, he is able to successfully break out and bumps into broke fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is fleeing a dispute with some fellow skippers.
Naturally, this is an odd-couple buddy comedy in which Tyler and Zak are able to bond over their outsider status, albeit coming from very different angles. The two performances are delightfully sensitive, with Gottsagen, in particular, thriving in a role that is essentially a heightened version of himself – simply swapping his own desire to be an actor with his character’s love for wrestling. Writer-director duo Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz allow the performances to be naturalistic and relaxed, giving the entire movie a freewheeling and gentle tone.
It’s interesting to see LaBeouf and Johnson, as well, in roles that are different to their usual bread and butter. LaBeouf seldom gets to showcase a truly sensitive side, but he finds that here in his protection and brotherhood with Zak. Johnson is compelling, meanwhile, as someone caught between her genuine affection for the people she cares for and the importance of doing everything by the book. The hints of romance between her and LaBeouf, however, are less well constructed and are one of the few times in which the story seems driven more by tropes than characters.
The film also gets plenty of joy from its references to the wrestling world. The videotape with which Zak is obsessed is a recognisable Hulk Hogan/Ultimate Warrior hybrid, while there are cameos late in the day from WWE legends Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts in an enjoyable ode to the oddity of backyard wrestling. It’s not the soul of the film, but there’s an affection towards the art form that a lesser film would not have bothered to show.
It’s simply a delight to witness the bond between Tyler and Zak, which boasts the standard arc from outright antagonism to genuine love, but feels warm and earns every emotional beat. LaBeouf’s intensity is a virtue here as he’s completely believable in both sides of Tyler’s personality – the sensitive man helping out someone less fortunate than him and the petulant scumbag who has caused a dispute that has people out for his blood. There’s an undercurrent of danger to much of The Peanut Butter Falcon, which ensures it never wades too deeply into the syrup of saccharine storytelling.
But the film never loses sight of its core sweetness, communicated via Nigel Bluck’s sunny cinematography and the register of the performances. They’re complex, definitely, but also all in service of crafting a tone that gives the relationships chance to grow and blossom into something that is completely believable, despite the occasionally absurd, fantastical elements of the story. The Peanut Butter Falcon knows what it is, and it embraces every grain of sugar along the way.
Dir: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Scr: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Cast: Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Bruce Dern, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley
Prd: Albert Berger, Christopher Lemole, Lije Sarki, David Thies, Ron Yerxa, Tim Zajaros
DOP: Nigel Bluck
Music: Zachary Dawes, Noam Pikelny, Jonathan Sadoff, Gabe Witcher
Run time: 98 mins
The Peanut Butter Falcon is released in UK cinemas from 18th October.