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The Peanut Butter Falcon is a runaway success


directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

Wonderful chemistry lifts the escapades of a Down syndrome man and petty criminal above the feelgood factor.

Plinkety-plink music sets the tone as it wafts over the opening frames of this feelgood film about a loner who befriends a young man with Down syndrome. But don’t be fooled – this movie has chutzpah. It criticises how we treat disability while also steering clear of both the patronising clichés inherent in odd-couple stories, and the now-unacceptable casting of “ordinary” actors as characters with special needs. (One wonders whether Dustin Hoffman would have won his Oscar for Rain Man three decades on.)

Zack Gottsagen stars as Zak, a 22-year-old forced to live in an old folks’ home because the state can’t provide anywhere more appropriate. A recidivist escapee, Zak is understandably desperate to get into the outside world, where he dreams of becoming a wrestler under the tutelage of his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (a great cameo from Thomas Haden Church).

Zak’s adventure brings him into the path of Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), whose cap is pulled low to mask an aching grief. Tyler’s initially cold heart is soon warmed, and a buddy road movie – albeit a Mark Twain-esque one, across rivers and down the coast of North Carolina – ensues as each man seeks his dream.

Despite its predictable, crowd-pleasing narrative and some fairly broad character types, this independent first feature charms its audience with universally fine performances from its leads, supported by Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), Bruce Dern and indie favourite John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone).

But it’s the two main men whose friendship is compelling and touching, with a genuineness that doesn’t feel like it’s just for the cameras. LaBeouf, who was revelatory as John McEnroe in 2017’s Borg vs McEnroe, has worked hard to escape his pretty-boy typecasting in blockbusters such as Transformers, and recently released his painfully semi-autobiographical film Honey Boy, in which he played the part of his own alcoholic father, with a younger actor playing LaBeouf.

Special praise, however, goes to Gottsagen who is terrific, not just as “an actor with Down syndrome”, but as an actor, full stop. Training in the craft since the age of three, he met the two directors at an acting class and persuaded them to cast him in a movie. These three unknowns then made a short proof-of-concept video, which was snapped up by LaBeouf and, five years later, their award-winning and critically acclaimed feature was born.

It just goes to show the simple power of an enchanting fable about having hope, living your dreams and rafting your way to freedom.



Video: Rialto Distribution

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.