Sunday, March 22, 2020

"The Peanut Butter Falcon": review

You don't often hear stories about Down syndrome people who are assholes. I've never personally known anyone afflicted with the genetic condition,* but from what I've seen over the years on TV and video, most Down folks are naturally predisposed to be sweet, kind, optimistic, and funny. Actor Zack Gottsagen is just such a person, and he's friends with writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Nilson and Schwartz decided to create a story just for Gottsagen, who had long said he wanted to be an actor, and this is, from what I've read, the legendary birth of the 2019 dramedy-adventure movie "The Peanut Butter Falcon," which also stars Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Yelawolf (a rapper), Jon Bernthal, and Thomas Haden Church. The film took six years to create and develop, and it's obvious that the story is a labor of love.

Zak (sic—the character's name lacks a "c") is a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who has been placed by the state in a retirement home where, like an elderly resident, he is tended to by staffers including harried-but-kindhearted Eleanor (Johnson). Enraptured by old VHS tapes of pro wrestling, Zak longs to leave his current life of confinement and become a wrestler. Every now and again, Zak tries breaking out of the home, but he is normally caught and brought back, where he faces the removal of certain privileges. Eventually, Eleanor officially labels Zak a flight risk, but Zak—with the help of his elderly roommate Carl (Dern)—escapes one last time and actually manages to get away, stealing off into the Southern night wearing nothing but a pair of tighty-whitey briefs.

Tyler (LaBeouf) is a struggling fisherman who lost his much-beloved older brother Mark (Bernthal, seen in flashbacks). Desperate to earn an income, Tyler has been stealing crabs from other workers' crab pots, incurring the wrath of fellow fishermen Duncan and Ratboy (Hawkes and Yelawolf), who mean to do Tyler bodily harm for filching thousands of dollars' worth of income. After one altercation ends with Tyler being severely beaten, Tyler responds by quietly setting fire to Duncan and Ratboy's crab pots and nets. Unbeknownst to Tyler, his fire spreads until all the docks are ablaze, but by that time, Tyler has skedaddled on his old boat. What Tyler doesn't realize at first is that Zak has made his way to the docks and hidden himself under a tarp on Tyler's rickety craft, and this is how the two runaways meet and begin an adventure together: Tyler is now heading to a hoped-for new life in Florida (the story begins in the Outer Banks of North Carolina); Zak wants to meet his pro-wrestling hero, Salt Water Redneck (Church), who supposedly runs a school for aspiring pro wrestlers. Tyler reasons that Zak's school is along the way to his final destination, so he promises to get Zak to Salt Water Redneck as best he can.

Eleanor desperately chases after Zak. Her boss has shrewdly decided not to report the young man missing, thus avoiding certain repercussions with the authorities and the legal system. Eleanor does what she can, canvassing the local neighborhoods in search of any trace of Zak. She randomly bumps into Tyler in a general store, and she meets up with Tyler and Zak a few days later. By this time, Zak and Tyler have deeply bonded, and Tyler feels protective of Zak. Tyler might think Eleanor is rather pretty, but he resents what he sees as her over-cautious, condescending attitude toward Zak, whom Tyler has taught how to swim and how to fire a shotgun. Early on, when Zak told Tyler that "I am a Down syndrome," Tyler dismissively replied, "I don't give a shit." Tyler is willing to treat Zak simply as a person—something Zak hasn't experienced during his time in the elder-care facility. "You might not be saying the word 'retard,' I'll give you that, but you're damn sure making him feel retarded," Tyler tells Eleanor. Eleanor angrily counters that Zak has no idea who she is or what she's done. He knows nothing about the string of old people to whom she has dispensed care and companionship, and whom she has had to watch die, one after another, over the past two years. Tyler respects this, and when Zak impulsively throws the keys of Eleanor's truck into the nearby water, Tyler invites Eleanor to come with him and Zak on their journey. Not planning on letting Zak out of her sight again, Eleanor says yes and joins the team.

The movie strongly evokes Mark Twain's along-the-river adventures of characters like Huckleberry Finn, and sure enough, our crew of three meets a variety of colorful individuals along the way, including a blind man who gives Tyler and Zak a baptism and allows them to scavenge his property so they can build a raft. The rest of the story involves what happens as the group approaches Zak's destination: the fabled home and wrestling school of Salt Water Redneck. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I hope you've read enough to be interested in seeing this good-hearted film.

And it is a good-hearted film. The presence of Zack Gottsagen, who is a legitimately talented actor, makes it so. Beautifully paced and shot, with elements of comedy and drama, the story of "The Peanut Butter Falcon" (Zak's wrestling name, which he gives to himself) will draw you in. Gottsagen's performance has a nice counterpoint in Shia LaBeouf's turn as a gruff, troubled, but ultimately good seed. While one of the movie's main themes is about following one's dreams, another theme, the one that I immediately latched onto, was brotherhood. Early in the film, old Carl at the nursing home tells Zak that "friends are the family you choose." As the plot unfolds before us, we see a wonderful thing happening: a family coalesces as Tyler, Eleanor, and Zak all bond, but the bond between Zak and Tyler is at the core of this: Tyler, who lost his older brother Mark, now has the chance to be an older brother to Zak. Caring for Zak brings Tyler's chaotic life into focus, giving him purpose and a sense of self-worth. Dead inside after his older brother's death, Tyler finds that caring for Zak brings forth little shoots of life and hope from the fallow ground of his soul.

The movie made me think about my relationship with my two younger brothers. I was never much of a teacher to them, nor was I any sort of wisdom figure. If anything, I was often just a tormenting jerk who occasionally did things that made them laugh, like driving with deliberate wildness while we were all in the car together. These days, my brothers and I all have completely separate lives, and while we keep in contact, there's no sense that our lives are intimately intertwined or bound together by a sense of mutual caring. We love and respect each other, but at a distance that is more than just physical. I think I envy the bond that forms between Tyler and Zak. Both men care for each other, and by the time the story ends, we're given to believe that this will be a friendship that lasts forever. I dare you not to cry when Zak tells Tyler that he plans to give Tyler all of his birthday wishes.

There were elements of this film that called to mind Robert Duvall's incredible movie "The Apostle," about a preacher on the run from the law who attempts to start a new life for himself. The Southern ambience, the slow journey, the mostly invisible presence of Jesus and redemption—these tropes also infuse "The Peanut Butter Falcon." This is a road movie that primarily takes place on the water, and the film has a classically American feel to it, evoking nature, a big sky, and an open future filled with hope and opportunity.

This review wouldn't be complete without a discussion of the movie's flaws, of which there are a few minor ones. You do quietly wonder where on earth Tyler is getting the money to pay for certain purchases; the money issue makes more sense once Eleanor—who actually has money—joins their group. There are also scenes that are deliberately filmed to be cartoonish, and while I felt this violated the overall tone a bit, I could also see that, because this was largely a story being told from Zak's innocent point of view, the cartoonish moments made sense from that perspective. The movie also leaves plenty of loose ends; a hard-bitten realist will wonder, as the credits roll, whether the situation in the film's final moments is really going to work out for the best. The filmmakers obviously want you to look at things that way: this is supposed to be a happily ever after sort of ending, and maybe realism is beside the point.

Ultimately, "The Peanut Butter Falcon"—so-called because Zak adopts his wrestling persona partway through the film, calling himself "Falcon" and smearing peanut butter on his face as a sort of war paint—is a good old, classic feel-good film. Its purpose is to restore your faith in humanity, and unless you have a heart of stone, it'll do just that.

*There may have been one person named Christie, back when I was in high school, but I'm not really sure that she suffered from Down syndrome, specifically.


John from Daejeon said...

Just saw this film. A real gem that many overlooked.

I have three brothers, but only one that I am really close to thanks to suffering together for little to no pay on our poor family farm. One brother joined the army as his way out, and by the time the youngest was old enough to help, the farm was no more.

Kevin Kim said...

It occurred to me that, almost every time I write a review about a wrestling movie, I write about my brothers. I think that's partly because I don't watch wrestling movies all that frequently (thus permitting a repetitiveness born of forgetfulness), and partly because so many wrestling movies are about family. Yeah, "The Peanut Butter Falcon" is really good.