Pair two characters who have nothing to lose, and let the magic happen. That’s “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” opening Friday, distilled, though it’s too flippant to capture the nuances that keep this earnest picaresque afloat.
A buddy movie that sharpens, if not redefines, the popular genre, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is also a road movie with few actual roads. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a desperate fish merchant who has been caught stealing, and then torching, the inventory of a fellow fishmonger off the Virginia docks; he’s fleeing punishment on his crummy boat, while dreaming of a maritime future in Jupiter (yes, our Jupiter).
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a 20-year-old, Down syndrome-afflicted escapee from a nearby state facility, with no family to speak of and a pipe dream of meeting his favorite wrestler, an aging grappler known as the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, in one of the film’s several brilliant casting coups).
Two souls adrift and out of options, Tyler and Zak find each other by happenstance, initially bonding only over their common goal to head south. They traipse through Old Virginia’s inhospitable terrain, through cornfields, forests and gator-infested waters, subsisting on peanut butter (hence the title, or part of it) and moonshine, with two pursuers on their swampy trail: Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s caretaker, and Duncan (John Hawkes), Tyler’s business rival, who seeks draconian revenge.
In an early chance meeting with Eleanor, Tyler vocalizes what the audience may have been thinking—that his quest is something out of a Mark Twain novel. By the time he and Zak fashion a makeshift raft from materials supplied by a blind, backwoods evangelist, it’s hard not to think of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” re-imagined in the forgotten America of … when exactly?
The movie’s time period isn’t exactly clear, but cellphones are primitive, the internet appears nonexistent, and the settings are a hillbilly time warp of two-pump gas stations (offering $1.20 fuel) and store clerks that total sales by hand. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is refreshingly rural, with myriad opportunities for the actors to get their hands, and everything else, dirty, supplemented by a well-chosen soundtrack of evocative bluegrass and Americana.
A few elements of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” are inevitable: that Tyler will evolve into a de facto father figure for Zak, finding in the young man the redemption he’s been seeking; and that Eleanor, conveniently single with her own quietly tragic history, will become a love interest for Tyler. But it’s the movie’s sense of play, its raffish charm, its freedom in just letting the camera run and capturing what transpires, that makes “The Peanut Butter Falcon” more than the sum of its plot.
I’m still not sure I buy the movie’s magical-realist climax, but its overarching sweetness is, in a word, irresistible. LaBeouf hasn’t seemed this immersed in a role in perhaps ever, and his brotherly camaraderie with Gottsagen, a real-life Down syndrome actor from Boynton Beach in his feature-film debut, is infectious and inspiring. Watching them interact, distinctions between character and performer—between acting and being—melt away into the brackish waters, and we want to be there with them, sharing in a bit of the kismet.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” opens Friday, Aug. 23 at most area theaters.