Set in North Carolina, this memorable and unpredictable adventure begins when Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, goes off to fulfill his lifelong goal of becoming a professional wrestler. Zak meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman with a checkered past. They come upon many challenges and victories while traveling through some amazing scenery on this heartwarming journey.
The friendship bond grows as Zak yearns for the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school in Florida based on all the VHS videos Zak’s watched including showstopping moves like the “Atomic Throw.” Zak focuses on little else except maybe plans for his upcoming birthday party. Tyler yearns to use his considerable skills to make a living among hard times as competition among other fishermen creates the film’s natural conflict and tension. Tyler’s honesty, practical guidance, and vulnerability give Zak the opportunity to show how big his heart really is. “Tyler, I am going to give you all of my wishes for my birthday,” Zak says.
Tyler’s desperate situation never compromises his true heart, which now longs for Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a kind nursing home employee, after a chance encounter. Gottsagen’s acting debut is a wonder. I never had much trouble understanding his dialogue delivery since I have work experience at an Ohio county DD (Developmental Disabilities) care organization for five years, but some audience members might can get a text reader so they can hear every word of this great story written by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz who also direct this personal gem in their feature film debut. Their efficiency, communication, and emotional intelligence easily produce a genuine, natural experience. Effective camerawork, like the top shots at a particularly tense river sequence, combines well with the picturesque cinematography from Nigel Bluck.
Comedy and some drama also fill out this quality 93-minute story as Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Haden Church fill out the cast. Dern predictable shares wisdom as Zak’s roommate Carl. “Friends are the family you choose,” Carl tells Zak as they try to improve Zak’s current situation. Hawkes plays Tyler’s vindictive fisherman rival fisherman named Duncan. “You’re not the only one hard up,” he says to Tyler as both men try to hang on to what they have. Glen (Lee Spencer) causes problems for Zak (unbeknownst to Zak) as the manager of Zak’s care facility.
Jon Bernthal pulls off a rare feat in a special role as Mark where he has no dialogue while Wayne Dehart also makes a special impression as Jasper John. Former wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley plus rapper Yelawolf also star.
The plot does not lean on situations to set up and deliver the emotion. The characters drive the story as the never-know-where-you’ll-end-up excitement of a traveling adventure that echoes Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn tale. Tyler even mentions Twain in the film.
They’re close to dire straits, but not in constant alert mode. They enjoy life when they can, but avoid the things that can threaten it. They’ll defend themselves and fight when needed (e.g. the “Family First” inscription on Tyler’s shotgun), but are not looking for trouble. They’re just trying to find a place where they can be themselves and share their life with others. The main characters create Zak’s wrestling moniker and make key decisions based on love, hope, and raw kindness.
This film is likable immediately as opening music titled “Cold Open” plays over the beginning titles. Zachary Dawes and Jonathan Sadoff of Thenewno2 join forces with Punch Brothers members Noam Pikelny and Gabe Witcher to provide the original music full of bluegrass, folk, and spiritual movement and themes. Audiences can also enjoy songs from Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show, Ola Belle Reed, Staple Singers, Sara Watkins, and Gregory Alan Isakov whose “The Stable Song” makes a great impression at a key point in the film.
Filmed with a budget of $6.2 million, The Peanut Butter Falcon comes highly recommended (***1/2 out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking.
This film won the Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight at SXSW Film Fest 2019. This film also earned the Seal of Authentic Representation from Ruderman Family Foundation for accurate depictions of people with disabilities.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler