Movie review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

If there are two things that define us, in the best way possible, as humans it is the need to belong and to feel as if and what we do matter.

The two are often though not always inextricably linked with the simple but profound fact of finding our “why” in life often leading to a sense of community with likeminded souls or at least a strong sense of connection to people who get who we are and what we do.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 20-year-old man with Down’s Syndrome, is in search of both these things, understandably unhappy about being corralled away from his peers in a nursing home in backwater Louisiana which has seen far better days and seems content simply to hide everyone away and make them as small an irritant to administrative and nursing staff as possible.

His one real friendship is with roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) and resident carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who actually gives a damn and is greatly dissatisfied with Zak’s placement in the home where he has no challenges, no sense of fulfillment and no chance of fulfilling his obsessive dream of being a wrestler (which he gives vent to by watching the same VHS videos by the Salt-Water Redneck Wrestling School).

Likable and mischievous, Zak is determined to effect an escape from the home, making pudding-based deals with fellow residents to make good on his crayon-sketched dreams of a new life but he is stymied again and again by an administration led by the wildly unimaginative Glen (Lee Spencer) who cares more about complimentary breakfast buffets at the hotels he stays at than the welfare of his charges.

The Peanut Butter Falcon, the title taken from the name Zak eventually gives himself as he smears himself with the breakfast spread and ash, explores what happens when Zak finally makes good on his long-simmering escape plans and sets off to find the wrestling school founded by his hero, the titular Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

On the surface what Zak, who has been called a “retard” by all kinds of unthinkingly cruel people all his life and internalised it to his detriment, wants is simple – to realise his dream.

But after he meets up with grief-stricken malcontent Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who has just set fire to $12,000 worth of crabbing equipment after poaching from its owner Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yealwolf), his reasonably straightforward quest, one realised in underpants only to begin with (it’s an amusing visual but Zak’s lack of concern about his state of undress points to how much he wants to make good use of his freedom), grows and grows until it becomes something else altogether.

The prevailing theme of this sweetly-affecting film, which may appear slight but is redolent with all kinds of deeply emotive meaning, is life’s capacity to surprise with what is possible, even after you have long given up on believing that anything good can happen.

On the surface, Zak is unaffected by this malaise, buoyed by his wrestling dreams and convinced that there lies all the happiness he needs (well, that and a big birthday party which becomes a running joke, though one with melancholic undertones) but dig deeper as Tyler does and you discover that, like all of us, Zak has internalised a voice that constantly tells him he can’t do things.

Tyler, who is so mired in grief around the loss of his adored brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), that he has lost all sense of purpose and connections to anyone and everyone, does not see himself as anyone’s saviour, even an accidental one, but he becomes that, in a sense, to Zak who is told again and again by his new, initially-reluctant, friend that he can do anything.

There is nothing condescending about Tyler’s entreaties to Zak to follow his heart – he doesn’t care that the young man who becomes like a younger brother to him has Down’s Syndrome; all he sees is someone who wants to realise a dream badly and who he believes has the potential to fulfill it.

His willingness to treat Zak like anyone else is a powerful part of the spirit that infuses The Peanut Butter Falcon, which never once assumes Zak can’t do something and sends him on his way, with the help of Tyler and Eleanor who comes to understand that for all the right reasons, she has been talking down to Zak and not treating him like someone with real hopes, dreams and a need to feel like he belongs.

Watching each of these wholly different and initially disparate people come together and grow individually and as the family none of them knew they needed, is a real joy, the emotion palpable at every turn, such as when Tyler discovers at Salt-Water Redneck’s front door that the school has shut down and agonises about how he will break the news to Zak, knowing full well that it will break his heart.

It’s moments like those, moments rich with humanity and connection, that gives The Peanut Butter Falcon such a powerful sense of vibrancy and joy – it doesn’t for a second pretend there is a happy ever after and that everything just works out.

Certainly, that’s not been the experience of Zak and Tyler in particular, but also Eleanor to an extent, who understand that what you want in life and what you get are two wholly different things.

There are moments when the film does take a few emotional shortcuts, such as Eleanor’s near-overnight transformation from realising your dreams sceptic to firm believer (and the romance between her and Tyler is heartwarming but feels a tad tacked-on), but they are not so grievous a narrative issue as to endanger the story’s overall ability to charm, inspire and delight.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those films that revels in the simplicity of laying humanity bare, of rightly assuming that everyone deserves to be treated as a person worthy of hopes, dreams and love, and of exploring how that can happen in the most unexpected and life-changing of ways.

But more than that, it elevates the idea that feeling you matter and belong in a way that goes right to the heart of who you are, are necessary and vital parts of being human and alive, and that with them fulfilled, we are far more stronger and more fulfilled that we dreamed possible.

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