Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson help Zack Gottsagen show how representation matters in this heartfelt adventure

The depiction of people with disabilities in cinema has rarely been given sufficient consideration and care, and in the worst cases is misrepresentative or straight-up offensive. Even applauded films such as My Left Foot and Rain Man still stumble by casting non-disabled actors in these key roles. Representation matters, and seeing it as gracefully executed, as it is here in The Peanut Butter Falcon, drives that point home all the more.

Zack Gottsagen plays Zak, a ward of the system after being abandoned by his parents. He’s spent the last two years ensconced in an old folks home in Richmond, Virginia. The state is ill-equipped (or disinterested in how) to handle a person with Down syndrome. In his time there he’s made friends, notably his roommate Carl (a mischievous Bruce Dern), who is happy to assist him in his efforts to escape. But this isn’t enough; fueling Zak is an intention to journey to North Carolina and prove his worth by joining his hero The Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church) at his wrestling school there. Zak’s adulation and aspiration is fueled by a collection of VHS tapes he has watched incessantly over the past few years. In pursuit is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a volunteer caregiver at the home who has taken him under her wing and been tasked with bringing Zak back to the home before they call the authorities in. Looking for help in his quest, Zak’s path crosses with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local fisherman who has literally burned his last connection to the area and is looking to get out of town fast. While initially reluctant to let Zak join him, Tyler is disarmed by this character and the two begin their backwater escape from the area.

First-time filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz first encountered Zack at a retreat for actors with various disabilities. Inspired by him, and enraptured by his character, they built a Huckleberry Finn-style sojourn through the south around his personality and predilections. The result is a very personal and very authentic riff on the road (raft) trip movie, with a mismatched pair getting into scrapes, forging an understanding of each other and themselves, and ultimately a bond. While familiar in how it unravels, this unique approach gives it a remarkable amount of freshness and poignancy. The Peanut Putter Falcon doesn’t feel overly scripted (aside from a clumsy “fake-out” near the end), leaning into a natural unfolding of conversation, decisions, interactions, and story. Zak’s affability and worldview offer moments of retrospection or outright levity, as well as a reminder of some of the struggles that people with disabilities might face. It’s a journey peppered with odd little encounters and incidents along the way: a store clerk, a blind preacher, a run in with a shrimping boat, and a redneck wrestling throwdown.

One of the strongest assets the film has is its cast. Shia LaBeouf (American Honey), Dakota Johnson (Suspiria), Bruce Dern (Silent Running, The Hateful Eight), John Hawkes (Too Late, Winter’s Bone), Jake “The Snake” Roberts, hell it’s even able to throw Jon Bernthal (The Punisher, Widows) into the mix in a crucial non-speaking flashback role. Local performers are also drafted in to add background texture. Gottsagen is a natural in front of the camera, sweet but with an admirable attitude and fortitude, as well as impressive comedic timing. LaBeouf continues to solidify his reputation and redemption as a natural and nuanced performer, bringing an honest grit that cuts through much of the emotional content. It’s understandable that the focus of the film is on the dynamic between Zak and Tyler, but you still wish that Dakota Johnson had been given a little more meat, as what she does with her limited role is wonderful — a warm, empathetic, and playful performance from start to finish. LaBeouf and Johnson are adorably mismatched, and while the chemistry there is palpable, the film wisely keeps it at arm’s length, instead positioning them more into clashes over how to essentially raise their surrogate son. It’s opined in the film that friends are the family you choose. These three people, bereft of the support they once had, thrown together, forge new connections and stories as their adventure unfolds.

An emotional adventure as much as a geographical one, the film veers away from being sentimental or schmaltzy thanks to the performances, but also by not shying away from uglier moments, like people being spiteful or simply unaware of how to deal with Zak. A necessary layer of education and enlightenment is deftly added and further countered by a film that takes time to bask in quieter, touching moments and the beauty of its surroundings thanks to cinematographer Nigel Bluck (True Detective). Swamp-lands, rivers, woods, beaches, and backwaters imbue the film with an incredible sense of place. Soulful shots and wide angles remind you of the allure of this region that sometimes comes across as so inhospitable. This rural charm feeds into a genuinely heartfelt, feel-good yarn. Beautifully composed, authentically told, The Peanut Butter Falcon showcases how to make a film not just about, but with, people with disabilities, and in doing so soars.

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