Best of 2019: The Peanut Butter Falcon Brings Hope Down South

Dakota Johnson, Shia Labeouf, and Zachary Gottsagen floating on a raft in The Peanut Butter Falcon
Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the first in our series of the Best Southern Movies of 2019. Over the next couple weeks we will review three more works released in 2019 that best understand the South.

By Reid Ramsey

On a raft floating down the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Tyler (Shia Labeouf) and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) need to talk about Zak (Zachary Gottsagen). They need to say some things about Zak without him being too privy to their conversation. To achieve this, they ask him to see how long he can hold his breath underwater. Zak eagerly dunks his head underwater as they discuss. He comes up for air. “How long was that?” he asks Tyler. They ask him to try again. When he comes up for air the second time, Zak is holding a fish that he’d grabbed with his bare hand underwater. This brief sequence encapsulates both the struggle and the raucous joy of The Peanut Butter Falcon, which follows a young man with Down syndrome, Zak, who flees from the retirement home in which the state is keeping him to travel south to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. 

Early in Zak’s journey he teams up with Tyler, a man with a dark past and in need of a change of scenery. While he and Zak may not be the most likely team, they’re headed in the same direction, and that’s enough for now. They’re later joined by Eleanor who was one of the caretakers at the facility Zak escaped from. She cares deeply for Zak and has a desire for his well-being that stretches beyond the confines of her job. The essence of their quest is to make it down to the home of the famous wrestler the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) where he teaches a school for professional wrestlers.

As an adventure story, The Peanut Butter Falcon was crafted in the likeness of a Mark Twain novel. It’s the type of movie that takes the peril of its characters seriously, but never succumbs to the temptation to foreground that peril. The characters may be in dangerous situations, but, first and foremost, they are having the adventure of their lives. With the exception of a handful of characters, most act out of kindness toward others even if that kindness is preceded with suspicion. 

The movie itself came about from kindness too. The directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, met Gottsagen at a camp for disabled actors where he simply asked them to make a movie starring him so he could become a movie star. Nilson and Schwartz credit much of the success of The Peanut Butter Falcon to Gottsagen’s optimism. Onscreen he radiates this optimism with a charisma that somehow stands out among the ranks of Labeouf, Johnson, Jon Berthal, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and an expertly cast Haden Church. It’s always an experiment to put a debut screen actor up against an A-list cast, but here it completely pays off. Gottsagen carries an authenticity to counteract any unintentionally ironic baggage of Labeouf. Together they craft one of the most deeply-felt onscreen friendships of recent memory.

Among the many feats of The Peanut Butter Falcon, two stand out as the most significant: first, the disability representation, and second, the deep understanding of southern coastal culture. To have a character with Down syndrome actually played by an actor with Down syndrome is unfortunately uncommon, and more often than not people with Down syndrome are among cinema’s invisible class, those who are rarely included in movies to begin. But then to have a character as dimensional as Zak portrayed by an actor so deeply in tune as Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon strikes a delicate balance that never becomes overly sentimental or jokey. He’s a pitch-perfect, expertly drawn character.

On the coastline of North Carolina, the film encounters a dozen or so wonderfully authentic characters. Some are fisherman, some truckers, some forced into retirement, but all are down on their luck. Even so, most of them experience a rejuvenation from encountering Zak, Tyler, and Eleanor that gives them hope for their future. When it feels like the world has forgotten them, they’re suddenly inspired to keep going. 

Somehow, without being hokey, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a dreamer’s movie. Movies rarely make room for dreamers that are as far out as the most outer banks. This story, though, understands the South; a place where the blind see the clearest, the outwardly hopeless inspire the most hope, and the impossible can be achieved, like, say, lifting a man twice your size over your shoulders and throwing him out of a backyard wrestling ring. 

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