It’s hard not to initially cringe a little when hearing the description of “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
With a self-consciously twee title and a plot involving the unlikely friendship that develops between an outlaw fisherman and a wrestling-obsessed young man with Down syndrome as they raft through the American South, it seems on paper to be the type of movie that gives American indie filmmaking a bad name.
It's easy to imagine a mawkish, cynical exercise in pulling the heartstrings of its audiences with little else to offer.
So it’s a pleasant surprise that the film turns out to be a genuine joy.
"The Peanut Butter Falcon" is sweet and sincere, and first-time writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz handle a potential minefield with disarming sensitivity.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen, making his feature film acting debut) is a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome who has been abandoned by his family. Without a guardian, he’s been sent to live in a retirement home, simply because no one can come up with a better place for him.
He spends his time obsessively watching old VHS tapes featuring his idol, the professional wrestler known as The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and dreaming of one day making his way to the wrestling training camp his hero runs in rural North Carolina.
One day, with a bit of encouragement from his elderly roommate (Bruce Dern, always a delight), Zak busts out of his room and sets off to pursue his dreams.
He ends up hiding out in a boat owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman who’s looking to escape some troubles of his own. He agrees to help Zak on his journey and with a bit of inspiration from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the two set off down the river.
Charged by her superiors with finding Zak, a concerned and sympathetic administrator named Eleanor (a charming Dakota Johnson) goes in search of the runaway. Meanwhile Tyler is being pursued by a dangerous pair of trappers (John Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf, menacing in their rather underdeveloped roles) out for retribution for the wrongs he’s done to them and their business.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” aims to be a feel-good film, part mismatched buddy comedy and part road trip movie. We follow Zak and Tyler’s episodic adventure as the “two bandits on the run” drift wherever the river may take them and encounter various oddball characters along the way.
LaBeouf comes with more than his share of off-screen baggage, but there’s no denying the guy can act. He’s a wonderful performer, investing his character with a raw vulnerability that bubbles forth as we see Tyler still mourning the death of his older brother (played in flashbacks by Jon Bernthal).
LaBeouf makes us believe the character’s arc, the begrudging acceptance of his new role as a reluctant guardian blossoming into something closer to familial affection. Tyler and Zak are two people in search of a human connection, and the bond formed between the pair gives the film its strong foundation.
But none of this would work as well as it does without Gottsagen.
Nilson and Mike Schwartz met Gottsagen at a camp for actors with disabilities before deciding to build a screenplay around him. He’s a natural on screen. His presence helps ensure that his character isn’t just a tool to spur a change in others.
Zak is a fully-developed and complicated individual; a young man desperate for a chance to finally experience life. The script doesn’t condescend to him, never asking us to pity his character, and allowing him to be funny without becoming the butt of the joke.
Ultimately, the plot of "The Peanut Butter Falcon" doesn't develop in particularly surprising fashion, but its realistic, rough-and-tumble Outer Banks setting blends shockingly well with an almost fable-like tone. Even when its climax threatens to overwhelm us with contrived resolutions, the story’s emotions feel honest and earned.
A joyful tale told with warmth and care, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a heartfelt story about people in rediscovering their own self-worth and, in seeing themselves through another’s eyes, learning the value they still have to offer the world.
'The Peanut Butter Falcon'
NOW SCREENING: At Cinemark Perkins Rowe and XD, AMC Mall of Louisiana 15, AMC Baton Rouge 16 and Movie Tavern Juban Crossing
MPAA RATING: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking
EXCELLENT (****), GOOD (***), FAIR (**), POOR (*)