Some things just go together: spaghetti and meatballs, ham and cheese, beans and rice, peanut butter and… freshly caught fish? You have to hand it to Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz: The pair of writer-directors have made a hell of a debut feature using a surprising combination of ingredients, some of which sound completely unappetizing on paper. (If someone had told me a week ago I’d be super into a feel-good indie wrestling comedy co-starring Shia LeBeouf and Dakota Johnson as love interests, I’d definitely have told them they were losing it. Yet here we are.)
In many ways, The Peanut Butter Falcon succeeds on the strength of its leading man. In his first-ever starring role in a feature film, Zack Gottsagen brings so much energy and heart to the screen as Zak, a young adult with Down syndrome who has been forced by the government to live in a North Carolina retirement home. Zak’s obsessed with a wrestler called the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), and he’s determined to get to Florida to attend his idol’s wrestling school, but his plans are constantly being thwarted. He likes the company of his elderly roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), and a kind-hearted young employee named Eleanor (Johnson), but a nursing home’s just no place for a 22-year-old with big dreams.
When Zak’s finally able to make a break for it, he quickly finds himself in for the ride of a lifetime. The little boat he’s chosen to hide on is commandeered by a scrappy, desperate loner named Tyler (LeBeouf) who’s on the run from a couple of local goons (played to redneck perfection by John Hawkes, John Bernthal, and Yelawolf) who caught him stealing from their fishing operation. Tyler doesn’t immediately want Zak’s company while on the lam, but eventually he’s won over by Zak’s relentless good nature. If you’re going to go on the run, you might as well have company.
It helps, too, that unlike most people in Zak’s life, Tyler doesn’t treat him like a child. As the two cut a path through the backwaters of the American South like a modern-day Tom and Huck, they strike up a deep friendship that’s sorely needed by both men — Zak was abandoned by his family years earlier, and Tyler’s still reeling from a car accident that killed his older brother. The scenes where the two bond as Tyler attempts to help Zak train as a wrestler and the pair share some unorthodox meals (like the aforementioned peanut butter and fish pairing) are some of the film’s most quietly moving and sweetly funny, especially when propelled along by a score that’s very Beasts of the Southern Wild.
They’re off to see the Saltwater Redneck, but they’ve got the aforementioned goons speeding up right behind them — along with Eleanor, who’s been tasked by her nefarious two-faced boss with bringing Zak back to the retirement home. When Eleanor catches up with them, she’s won over by Tyler’s mischievous sense of humor, and she’s thus convinced to tag along on their trip. Johnson and LeBoeuf somehow have excellent chemistry that makes their characters’ unlikely pairing (she’s a college graduate, he’s a high school dropout) imminently believable, and their back-and-forth ribbing feels natural. Together with Gottsagen’s character, they make a nice little family.
It all probably sounds a bit too twee on paper, but on the screen, it never feels overdone, even though you can see where this is all heading from early on in the film’s running time. This might just be the most pleasant time you’ll spend at the movies this month.