Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church — “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is full of the sort of character actors who fall into that “I’d watch him in anything” category. (“Bruce Dern is in this? It must be pretty good, right?”)
And yet what makes “The Peanut Butter Falcon” such an enjoyable movie are the two lead performances, one by an actor I had never seen in a movie before — Zack Gottsagen — and one by an actor I never thought I’d want to see in a movie again — Shia LaBeouf.
First-time writer-directors Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz build “Falcon” around Gottsagen, who’s funny and charming, and imbues his character with an indefatigable spirit. He plays Zak, a 22-year-old man who, like Gottsagen, has Down syndrome. State officials in his native Virginia, unsure of what to do with him, have left him to languish in an assisted living facility for the last two years. Zak is well-liked by the senior citizens there, including his cantankerous roommate Carl (Dern). But he yearns to escape.
Zak’s dream is to travel to North Carolina, where his favorite pro wrestler, a downmarket Hulk Hogan type named Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) has started a wrestling school. Zak thinks he’s got the right stuff to become a pro wrestler himself, and he’s even got his name all picked out — the Peanut Butter Falcon, because peanut butter is his favorite food, and falcons are cool.
I worried a little that “Falcon” would mock Zak and in his dream, especially when he escapes the retirement home by stripping down to his tightie-whiteys, slathering soap lather all over his body and wriggling between the bars of his window. But the film is never condescending, treating Zak with the dignity he deserves. Even when he’s running down the highway in his underwear.
Hiding out in a boat on a dilapidated pier, Zak comes across Tyler (LaBeouf), a crab fisherman who has been stealing from other fishermen’s crab pots to get by. On the lam from other fishermen (including one played by the menacing Hawkes), Tyler reluctantly agrees to take Zak with him.
If you’re predicting that these two men, while initially so different, will forge an unlikely but close bond while traveling together, you may have seen an independent movie before. However, the familiarity of “Falcon” doesn’t make the journey any less sweet, as LaBeouf and Gottsagen display an easy chemistry together.
LaBeouf’s offscreen antics and controversies have threatened to overshadow his gifts as an actor lately, but he makes Tyler an ultimately good-hearted rascal. Tyler, it turns out, is haunted by the death of his older brother (played by Jon Bernthal in flashbacks), and he exudes a brotherly protectiveness over Zak that's just lovely. There’s a scene where the two men are playing on the beach, whooping and tussling, where they seem almost like little kids. It’s a joyful scene in a movie that isn’t afraid to stop and let those moments happen.
On their picaresque journey to North Carolina, the duo encounters a range of colorful characters, some threatening, but most kindly to the duo and their quest. On their heels is a caseworker played by Dakota Johnson, determined to bring Zak home even as, deep down, she knows he doesn’t belong at the assisted living facility.
Comparisons to “Huckleberry Finn" aren’t unintentional, and become explicit when Tyler makes a wooden raft for them to float on. The stunning shots of the bayous and swampland that Tyler and Zak travel through give “Falcon” an almost fable-like quality. Wilson and Schwartz have cast non-professional actors in small roles throughout, who add texture and flavor to the film.
A lovely, cohesive soundtrack of country and indie rock buoys “The Peanut Butter Falcon” along from beginning to end. This river through the Deep South doesn’t lead anywhere particularly new or innovative, but it’s a very appealing trip to take.