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" Hoofing is alright but there’s not future in it "
— Fred Astaire, Swing Time

MRQE Top Critic

Surveillance

The cast is the glue that holds together this eerie, demented ride —Matt Anderson (review...)

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The Peanut Butter Falcon is one of those small, off-the-radar movies that deserves to be seen.

Big Things Have Small Beginnings

Zak and Tyler embark on an adventure
Zak and Tyler embark on an adventure

There’s something special about this one. There’s something in the story. There’s something in the messages about pursuing dreams and forming bonds. There’s something here that’s drawn some big names into this small-scale production.

Leading the cast are Shia LaBeouf (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades trilogy). But there are also smaller roles filled by Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Jon Bernthal (Sicario), Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3) and Jake “The Snake” Roberts (a legend in the ol’ World Wrestling Federation). They all contribute to this special delivery.

And then there’s a guy named Zak Gottsagen. He has been described by the directors (feature first-timers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz) as the catalyst for this entire endeavor. Gottsagen befriended the pair years ago and his personality is a top draw. Yes. He has Down syndrome. He wants to be a movie star. And he has a way with people. He’s motivated.

In The Peanut Butter Falcon, Zack plays a guy named, suitably, Zak. Without a family, he’s been relegated to a small nursing home in North Carolina. But he has dreams of busting loose and becoming a professional wrestler. The opening scene sets the tone as Zak plots his big break-out. It involves some chocolate pudding and a distraction.

Foiled that time — in a humorous, abrupt physical take-down — he tries again, aided and abetted by his roommate, Carl (Dern). Oiled up, Zak shimmies through some newly-installed window security bars (he’s been labeled a flight risk, the least insulting of the descriptions and names flung his way by caregivers and others). And... he’s... out!

Squared Circle of Dreams

What follows is quite a journey. It’s a sort of Field of Dreams tale in which serendipity meets with fantasy, balanced by some honest emotions. There are references to Mark Twain, Louis L’Amour and Lord of the Flies. But, transcending all of that is a refreshing sense of authenticity and heart.

Behind the scenes, it all starts with Gottsagen.

But LaBeouf adds Hollywood credibility. He’s taken his lumps in recent years; he’s made some questionable life choices and he’s made negative comments about some of the movies he’s starred in, effectively creating a divide with a few of his prior A-list collaborators. And he’s had some run-ins with the long arm of the law, including an episode of public intoxication in Savannah, Ga., while filming Peanut Butter Falcon in 2017.

Here, though, his performance warrants a reevaluation of where LaBeouf is headed. He might very well be back on track; it’s less about the Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn antics and more about the Christian Bale, Robert Pattinson immersion process. This is far from a vanity project. LaBeouf plays a down-and-out fisherman named Tyler, who’s struggling to put his life back in order following the loss of his brother (Bernthal in a quiet cameo). Tyler has reasons to feel guilt, but he’s also at his wit’s end when Zak enters his life.

In short order, the two form a bond. It’s important, Tyler notes, that two people on a quest should have a deeper connection. For Zak and Tyler, they’re both on the lam. Tyler’s fleeing the scene of another bad life choice; Zak’s running away from his caregivers — among them, Eleanor (Johnson). Eleanor ultimately, by way of that emotional connectivity, joins the quest.

The duo becomes a trio. Johnson proves to be sweet and eminently likable when she’s able to break away from controversial roles loaded with pop culture baggage. Gottsagen brings it in a role that was written for him. And, of course, LaBeouf shows he’s got his chops back.

The Atomic Throw

Tying in with the themes of loyalty and living out dreams, Tyler sums it up perfectly. You’re gonna die. The question is if people will have good stories to tell about you when you’re gone. Within moments of sharing that sentiment with Zak, the two encounter one of many life-threatening dangers during their trek.

As the two bandits, Zak and Tyler, make their way from North Carolina to Florida, with an eye on enrolling Zak in a wrestling school run by Salt-Water Redneck (Church), in which the wrestler promises to make you a “bad ass,” Zak is pursued by Eleanor and Tyler is chased by some fisherman with an axe to grind.

Along the way, they encounter colorful characters that feel real, grounded. Among them is a blind preacher who sheds more light on the characters as Zak is baptized and Tyler declines, preferring baptism by fire.

It’s all presented with gorgeous cinematography by Nigel Buck (third season of True Detective) and musical accompaniment from Noam Pikelny and Gabe Witcher. There’s some banjo playing, but it steers clear of revisiting Deliverance.

While the cast, visuals and music all contribute to an indelible impression, it’s the movie’s heart (a rarity, particularly in summer blockbuster season) which ultimately makes Peanut Butter Falcon take flight.