The new indie film, “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” qualifies, at least in my book, as one of the most genuine films I’ve ever seen. In Catholic media circles, we often speak about ‘good’ media being those media stories that build and uphold the dignity of the human person. This film hits the nail right on the head in that department.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome. He’s a ward of the state and since they don’t have anywhere else to put him, he lives in a nursing home. Zak keeps Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), one of the home’s employees, on her toes with his repeated escape attempts. He has no qualms about letting her know that he doesn’t belong there with old people. She does her best for Zak but she knows that he’s unhappy.
Zak subjects his long-suffering roommate, Carl (played by the incomparable Bruce Dern), to endless showings of an old VHS tape of wrestler, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), advertising his wrestling school. Zak wants nothing more than to find Salt Water Redneck and join the school. With Carl’s help, Zak finally stages a successful escape. He has no money, no family, and almost no clothes.
Enter Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). He’s been surviving by poaching other fishermen’s crab pots and his crimes are catching up to him. Trying to escape his pursuers on his little boat, he’s surprised to find Zak hiding under a tarp, clad only in his underwear.
Zak takes to Tyler right away but it doesn’t work the other way around. Grudgingly, Tyler allows Zak to tag along with him as they are both on the run, though for different reasons. They embark on a modern-day Huckleberry Finn adventure, complete with river raft.
Along the way, Zak’s genuine innocence captures Tyler’s wounded heart and Tyler becomes an unlikely coach as they travel together towards Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school.
Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen in "The Peanut Butter Falcon" (Roadside Attractions)
Meanwhile, Eleanor is doing her best to find the missing Zak. When she meets up with Zak and Tyler, her own wounded heart leads her to board the raft and set out with the duo.
Shia LaBeouf, whose personal life has been under the microscope lately, turns in the best performance of his career as Tyler. He said in an interview that working with newcomer Zack Gottsagen has helped him to come out of his selfishness and be a better listener.
Human dignity shines forth in every scene of this film. Tyler’s a bit rough around the edges but he treats Zak like the adult he is and gets upset when someone calls him “retard.” Eleanor is suffering with her own losses but she’s open enough to care for Zak in a way that’s not restricted by the red tape of bureaucracy.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” excels as a story of simple kindness. It’s often those people who are the most wounded themselves who are the best equipped and willing to show love and compassion to others who need healing. This is surely the case with Tyler, Eleanor, and Zak who become wounded healers to each other.