SXSW Review: Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson star in ‘THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON,’ a scrappy indie that will kick start your heart
James C. Clay // Film Critic
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
When 2019 is all said and done, there will be many good movies in the rearview. Some will make us laugh, some will be spooky, and some may show us a part of the world that exists only in our dreams. The scrappy indie THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, from first-time filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, has it all – from layered performances, to humor that shows us a familiar template but told through a perspective we have never seen before. What allows the story to be so moving is the filmmaking team come at the material from a truly genuine place. For a film this small, the filmmakers and producers were able to align a dream cast, including disabled actor Zac Gottsagen, Shia LeBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church.
The filmmakers center the story on Gottsagen, a young man with big dreams and will power that is without equal. While this film could’ve have been lost in saccharine predictability, it’s the filmmaking vision and honesty that make it undeniable. Zac is a 22-year-old man with down syndrome who lives in a retirement community for senior citizens. He sits around watching wrestling VHS tapes and plotting his escape with a clever resident named Carl (Bruce Dern). Under the watchful eye of resident advisor Elenor (Dakota Johnson), Zac still manages to escape. She knows Zac well enough to know that he is looking for a wrestling school in South Florida run by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). So, she saddles up in a massive economy van and travels down the coast on the hunt for Zac’s whereabouts.
After a night on the lamb, Zac’s life collides with a fisherman down on his luck named Tyler (LeBeouf), who is having hard times after the death of his brother (John Bernthal). Tyler has landed himself in hot water with some local competitors (Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf) who are looking to bust his head open with a tire iron. Tyler’s not the kind of guy you want to cross, but he is the friend you’d want to have in your corner. LeBeouf’s commitment to the role is a revelation to anybody who has found themselves down a dark hole in life.
LeBeouf opens himself up to this film, with a raw performance that is lived-in, natural and embodies the spirit of American folk tales. Tyler and Zac trudge through the swampy marshes on foot, makeshift boat, or wherever the wind takes them.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON isn’t exactly a dark drama, despite its themes; however, it’s not exactly a comedy either. It appears that Nilson and Schwartz found a slice of life to depict on screen, one that opens us up to a person we never would have known otherwise. Gottsagen isn’t used as the film’s mascot, but as the leader of a project that could not exist without his abilities. Both Zac and Tyler struggle with finding their place in life. This may come off as surface-level indie fodder, but with the unbridled joy the filmmakers and actors put into this project, it sings with profound existentialism.
It’s the simplicity that is beautifully executed in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON. Nilson and Schwartz didn’t have an easy task on their hands getting this project to completion and with such grace. These two outlaws’ friendship becomes one for the ages, not since Taika Waititi’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE has a buddy road movie been this emotionally stirring. Like Waititi, the filmmakers have a singular aesthetic that plays into the story (just not as cooky). We meet a laundry list of curious faces and settings that bring a richness to the film. As the duo becomes a trio, Tyler sparks an attraction to Elenor – who I wish had a bit more to do in the film alongside the guys, but becomes a necessary component of empathy that helps both of these lost boys feel loved in different ways. As Carl says to Zac at the beginning of the film, “Friends are the family we choose.”
Should THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON be released this year, it will have a firm place in my 10 best of the year. For all of its the earnestness that takes over in the film, it’s a film that will kick start your heart. As we go on this journey, it’s easy to settle into the dangerous yet relaxing vibes of the deep south. At the end of the tunnel is a romanticism for life, to drink it all in with a smile on your face and to expect the impossible.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is currently seeking distribution.