Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man who escapes who from the nursing home where he was abandoned and then raised to run off and become an amateur wrestler. He wants to travel to the outer banks of North Carolina where, supposedly, legendary amateur wrestler the Salt Water Redneck teaches students from around the globe.
Fortunately Zak comes across Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a failed crab fisherman on the run from a group of men he wronged. Together the two make a modern-day Tom and Huck, lost boys leaving behind lives that didn’t suit them in search of something more. The Peanut Butter Falcon is in all ways a quintessential example of the quirky, feel-good adventure prevalent in independent cinema — a unique protagonist, a charming partner and a cute love interest along for the ride (Dakota Johnson as Eleanor, who took care of Zak in the home and wants to bring him back but ends up joining them and falling into a flirtation with Tyler). But it’s a good feel-good movie, coming at the right time as summer wanes and we transition into a headier movie season.
Gottsagen is the standout here, creating in Zak a character so vividly deserving of his desired destiny that his search for the Salt Water Redneck feels vibrant and alive. He’s a man with Down syndrome, and although that plays a role in his character’s backstory, it doesn’t become the purpose of the movie or the focus of the story. It goes without saying that Gottsagen’s casting is a step forward for representation, and in various interviews he has spoken about his journey to acting — paralleling in sprit his character’s journey here.
It helps that he’s backed up by one of LaBeouf’s best performances in years as an impromptu travel buddy whose past hides a dark and distressing secret. A lesser movie would’ve featured LaBeouf’s Tyler learning life lessons of some kind from Zak, but here the two of them are fleshed out as complementary characters. As an artist, LaBeouf consistently takes great risks in his choices and few seem to ever really pay off, so it is easy to forget his talent at playing complex and sympathetic characters. Here he’s perfectly cast.
Writer-director duo Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz follow plenty of the traditional plot beats of a swampy southern voyage. Folk music and spirituals fill the soundscape as Zak, Tyler and Eleanor meet kooky characters, shoot off guns, cross rivers and engage with blind preachers, backyard wrestlers and other notable riff-raff. Every scene is something you’ve probably witnessed in another, similar movie, but it’s strung together with such heart that it doesn’t matter in the moment or when you walk out of the movie, glad to have spent two hours on a such an uplifting adventure adventure with this group. Most of us can’t run away to join the circus (or become a wrestler), but it’s thrilling to watch a couple characters overcome their pasts and the people holding them back to do just that.