Peanut Butter Falcon is what we go to the movies for—a classic underdog story, a piece of cinematic artwork (three words: vast aerial shots), and, not just a suspension of reality, a thoughtful questioning of it.
It would be easy to think this story merely sweet, a heart-string tug arguing for inclusion and diversity in film. But the story refused to be so simply reduced and underestimated, like Zak (Zach Gottsagen), its hero.
In a depressed, swampy, rural south, Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome, dreams of escaping the nursing home where he lives to become a professional wrestler under the tutelage of the “Salt-Water Redneck.” When he finally succeeds, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a volunteer embodying good intentions, sets off to, she thinks, rescue him. Zak, meanwhile, joins forces with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a man on the run from the law and the lawless after a violent falling out with a gang of local fishermen. A story in the playful cadence of a Mark Twain novel, complete with a raft ride, ensues.
Like in a Mark Twain novel though, Eleanor, the principal female character, is merely pretty (though Falcon does spare us most of a predictable romantic suggestion between Tyler and Eleanor). Johnson simply doesn’t add much to the film, which is perhaps irrelevant in a delicate story wisely left unobscured by one dominating performance, and instead balanced like a water strider on LaBeouf and Gottsagen’s chemistry.
From the first character introductions, the film plays with reality and our perceptions and assumptions. “Gritty equals realistic,” seems a common aesthetic principle in film. And no person or object here is not broken and dirty, covered in a generous splatter of mud and profanity. Yet everything is worn to agelessness; we get the sense that time has left this place behind. Despite the harsh setting, Zak stumbles upon kind people. The audience roots for Zak and Tyler’s friendship, but shares Eleanor’s doubts that the world is really so gentle and fortuitous. Can Zak really just go without his medication? Can you really just leave a care facility and walk down to Florida without the authorities getting involved? Are people really good under rough exteriors?
Eleanor poses some of these questions, and Zak chucks her car keys in the ocean. With that, the movie seems to signal an abandonment of strict realism and prompts us to ask different questions.
Brilliantly, the story travels light in backstories and moralizing. Writers Tyler Nelson and Michael Schwartz assume and stereotype very little—except the villains, who are basic, junkyard-variety stock characters. But they do assume the viewer’s intelligence and empathy. We see flashes of Tyler’s tragically lost brother, hear the barest, sneering mention of Elenor’s privileged upbringing. Mostly, though, we’re expected to figure out the characters and judge them on our own, a potentially convicting exercise, revealing assumptions in surprises.
The film is full of judgment, justice, and questions about both.
Zak and Tyler are asked at gunpoint by a blind man, “Are you black or white?” And then, “Are you God-fearing?” This man explains the world in terms of “sheep and wolves.”
“There’s good guys and bad guys,” Tyler tells Zak. “And you have a good-guy heart.”
Zak says, “I can’t be a hero because I am a Down-Syndrome person.”
Tyler explains that the abandonment Zak has experienced is not the life he deserves, not the reality that defines him.
The bad guys who pursue Tyler seek to execute what they see as just retaliation.
Falcon shows us how people judge each other on their morality and ability, wondering, almost in the same breath, if people are good, what makes them so, and if the legendary wrestling move, “The Atomic Throw,” is possible. The ending is almost too good to be true but makes us yearn to make a family, even a world, in which it is. (Roadside Attractions)