For some time there’s been a regrettable tendency in Hollywood to employ actors with Down Syndrome either as harbingers of weirdness or as irrepressible life forces that are mostly around to remind uptight “normal” characters what’s really important. A tiny bit of the latter can be found in The Peanut Butter Falcon, which pairs Shia LaBeouf with newcomer Zack Gottsagen, who has Down Syndrome. A quirky indie buddy movie where Gottasagen’s lively presence can’t completely be pinned down by feel-good clichés, and his unpredictability helps brings out the best in LaBeouf. As in most buddy movies, so long as the chemistry works, a lot can be forgiven.
We open with an escape from an institution: Zak (Gottsagen), who without a family has been stuck for two years in a nursing home, enlists the help of his roommate (a delightful Bruce Dern) to bend the iron bars on their window, then greases himself up and manages to squeeze through, wearing only his tighty whities. Before long Zak sneaks onto a small boat owned by Tyler (LaBeouf), who needs to engineer a speedy escape of his own in order to avoid being beaten or possibly even killed by an angry crab-fishing rival (John Hawkes). After some compulsory efforts to get rid of his stowaway, Tyler agrees to escort Zak from Virginia to North Carolina, where Zak hopes to attend a wrestling school taught by the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), all of which Zak’s learned of by constantly watching an ancient VHS tape at the nursing home. (Zak eventually adopts his own wrestling persona that gives the film its oddball title.) Meanwhile, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), an empathetic volunteer at the nursing home, is given marching orders to go out and find Zak, but ultimately gets roped into accompanying both men on the tail end of their epic journey.
In professional wrestling, there are “good” characters and “bad” characters. Zak, at one point, insists on being a “bad” character because he was abandoned by his family and thus eliminates his chances for a redemptive arc. “Good guys get left too,” Tyler assures him. The Peanut Butter Falcon reckons with the deep-seated effect that isolation can have on a young person, specifically a young, disabled person, in thinking that because bad things have happened to them that they are the ones to blame. The film uses the “R”-word somewhat frequently, which admittedly hurts to hear, but ultimately its used purposely to break down the notion that it means “less than.” The context of the time and place the films set in is also key. It’s the deep south, and while no actual timeframe is given, the prominence of VCR’s and the only cell phone being a flip phone points us to the early-2000s. It has a feeling of a Jeff Nichols film in that way, where the southern locals are filmed lovingly poetic making it feel almost stuck out of time.
The feature debut of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon wouldn’t work without LaBeouf’s raw and endearingly turbulent performance. Many have written off LaBeouf after his many scandals (personally, he does seem to very much be on the up and up), but these past few years he’s delivered many solid performances and this one assuredly joins them, as he carries his baggage and infuses it into Tyler’s pain, giving a vulnerable and open performance that is both silent and blunt. But this movie wouldn’t exist without Gottsagen, truly a one-of-a-kind talent. Gottsagen, who’s so natural on screen that he grounds the film in reality during even its most precious and prescriptive moments, inhabits his role with enough nuance and dimensionality to embarrass the very idea of casting an enabled person in a role like this. It’s a performance that doesn’t have any need for asterisks: Gottsagen is sympathetic without being pitiable, sweet without being saintly, and funny without making himself the butt of every joke.
The film does have its bumps in the road. It’s final act has moments of being a little contrived and it makes some predictable choices that feel a little dull compared to the previous material we’d been given earlier. The film’s villains are maddeningly basic and the reliance on stock reversals doesn’t really help either. But through all that, there’s the chemistry between Gottsagen and LaBeouf, which consistently wins. Their dynamic recalls the one between Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man in some ways; Gottsagen brings multifaceted work to Zak, putting sarcastic spins on many lines and conveying volumes without speaking at all. Nilson and Schwartz built the entire movie around the two, but even more specifically Gottsagen, whom they discovered at a camp for aspiring actors with disabilities; he’s been studying his craft since the age of three, and it surely shows. Sure, you could have tried to stick a non-disabled actor at the center, but very thankfully Nilson and Schwartz don’t (sorry Scarlett Johansson you don’t get this one this time). Making this a beautiful example of how diversity in casting and conception makes the landscape of cinema richer. Enlivened by its absorbing heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon boasts a fantastic duo at its center and delivers a rich story on the human connection.