'Peanut Butter Falcon' is a tasty, slightly predictable treat

Twenty-something Zak has Down syndrome. He spends his identical days in a backwater North Carolina nursing home, watching the same videotape — over and over — of his professional wrestling idol, the Salt Water Redneck, in dynamic action. That ancient tape includes a recruitment ad for The Redneck’s famed wrestling school nearby.

Like most DS folks, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a gentle, docile soul who’d hardly be considered a “flight risk.” But he really wants to get out, not aimlessly but very purposefully, to find and attend the school and become a pro wrestler himself.

With the aid of his crusty old roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak executes a great soapy escape from right under the not-too-watchful eye of his caseworker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’



  • Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen.
  • Rating: PG-13 for mild language and adventure danger.

Meanwhile, a slacker fisherman-boatman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) gets fired from his Outer Banks gig, beaten up for good measure, and burns the employer’s dock down on his way out.

Tyler’s great escape coincides with Zak’s in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” an appealing adventure in the Mark Twain mode with an appealing new kind of hero.

“Maybe we could be friends ... buddies? Hang out? Chill? ... Have a good time?” Zak asks plaintively after their first encounter.

No way. Until their paths cross with Eleanor’s at (where else?) Bubba’s Gas Station, and Tyler discovers this frangible man on the lam may have tangible value.

Thenceforth, the unlikely allies look out for each other, rafting through the deltas, eluding current enemies and past keepers in life-threatening situations, with Tyler racking up more saves than Felipe Vazquez.

“Tyler, am I gonna die?” Zak asks at one point, after nearly drowning.

“Yeah, you’re gonna die. Everybody’s gonna die,” Tyler replies. “That’s not the question. The question is: Are they gonna have good stories to tell about you when you’re gone?”

Co-writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, in their feature film debut, make fine use of atmospheric photography — the bayous and woodlands, blue herons and crocodiles, in and around Savannah, Ga., with spare banjo music to underscore the action.

But it’s the plucky cast that makes the magic. Gottsagen’s terrific liveliness and unpredictability brings out the best in LaBeouf and, as with all male-bonding buddy pictures, if that chemistry works, other flaws are forgivable. LaBeouf is one of few actors who, with his mumbly, rapid-fire, throwaway delivery, could turn his cliched character into a layered role.

(True to that screen role, while filming on location in Savannah, LaBeouf was arrested on public drunkenness charges in the wee hours of July 8, 2017.)

Johnson, an underrated and nicely understated actress, gives more credulity to her character than it deserves, while old pro Dern and Thomas Haden Church as the Salt Water Redneck provide chew-up-the-scenery fun.

The result is a little movie that doesn’t stand up to deep scrutiny but keeps the sentimental hokum to a minimum. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in refreshingly empathetic charm. Above all, it doesn’t condescend to its star or the life experiences of DS adults in general.

These days, 20% of adults with Down syndrome hold down paying jobs in sheltered work environments, and everyone knows (or should know) a DS person. I’m thinking of my own dear, feisty nephew Cooper, and of the life-saving laughter that comes with his difficult territory.

I recommend this charming family-friendly fare for everyone.

Oh, and as for the strange title, it’s easily explained — which is why I won’t. You’ll have to see it and find out for yourself.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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