If I were to critique this movie in a vacuum, as if it were a film school assignment where I were to judge it solely on its technique, acting, production values and screenplay, The Peanut Butter Falcon would receive a middling shrug of a write-up, as my reaction to this movie, strictly from a craft standpoint, would be average at best. But I don’t live in a vacuum and even though we may watch movies in a darkened room, we don’t exist in one and movies, like everything else, have to find their place in this world. Movies are reflections of their times, no matter how escapist they may try to be, and it’s nearly impossible to take in a movie without judging it against its time and place where it finds its audience.
To that end, America in 2019 is a very dark place. In a divided country where rhetoric incites fear and mass shootings and environmental decay are the norm, there is little to feel optimistic about, little to look forward to. Politics are breaking up families and smartphones and social media are causing us to retreat from human interaction. Simple human compassion is harder and harder to come by. I myself have felt my cynicism and hopelessness creep in more than I’d like to admit and sometimes I wonder when and if I will ever stop feeling this way. So you’d think I’d be the ideal target audience for a movie that is about the human spirit and compassion towards your fellow man. And, yet, I was still dreading The Peanut Butter Falcon. I was just not in the mood for a cheesy, schmaltzy movie that is designed to manipulate my emotions and tell me how good the world can be if we are just nice to each other.
Well, fortunately, The Peanut Butter Falcon is not that, at least not completely. It is a movie, though, with a sincere premise: an adult with Down Syndrome escapes from the nursing home where he is being cared for because he wants to be free, and, more specifically, he wants to go to this professional wrestling school that he’s seen on videotapes. Soon after he breaks out, he runs into a gruff, street-smart ne’er do well fisherman who himself is on the lam from other fisherman who accuse him of poaching their territory. The sweet and spirited Zack and the cynical and tough Tyler of course become fast friends and we learn that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that every human being deserves respect and compassion, because everyone has a story, hopes and dreams.
Sounds pretty sappy, huh? Well, it is.
The best way to describe The Peanut Butter Falcon is this: it’s a Christian movie without the Christianity. What I mean by that is it has all the earmarks of a movie that usually comes to us with a religious agenda: a feel-good, uplifting and heartwarming movie for all ages. It is designed to remind us of the good in people and that everyone deserves human kindness and compassion. Is it heavy-handed and simple? Yes. Is it predictable and derivative? Yes. But you know what? It also turned out to be an incredibly powerful salve to my soul—one I didn’t even realize I needed.
First-time writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz probably knew that they weren’t breaking any new cinematic ground with this movie, so, instead, they leaned into some tried-and-true storytelling elements and crafted a movie designed to make you feel, not think. What I mean by that is it’s emotionally manipulative, but it doesn’t pretend not to be. They also crafted a screenplay that manages to be sincere, but also very funny. But the best thing Nilson and Schwartz did was they cast their movie well. We are used to seeing developmentally-able actors playing developmentally-disabled characters, like Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi in The Other Sister, and John Malkovich in Of Mice And Men, to name just a few. Nilson and Schwartz knew that, in 2019, that really can’t fly anymore, so they found a Down syndrome actor to play the lead and, as it turns out, actor Zack Gottsagen is pretty terrific. Gottsagen actually has some great chemistry with the actor they hired to play Tyler, Shia LeBeouf. Yes, you read that right. Notorious Hollywood troublemaker Shia LeBeouf is in a heartwarming, feel-good movie. And, guess what. He’s never been better. LeBeouf’s casting was inspired, because LeBeouf’s chemistry with Gottsagen lights up the screen and LeBeouf, who has always been a good actor who made bad choices, gets the chance to really show what he can do. He plays Tyler exactly right, not too hard and not too soft. He allows Gottsagen to shine and gives the audience a surprisingly grounded performance to grab onto. Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church and Bruce Dern have smaller parts in the movie, and they are fine, as is the always-great John Hawkes as the villain, but The Peanut Butter Falcon is a two-actor movie and these two actors are great together.
So yes, The Peanut Butter Falcon is exactly what you think it is. It was exactly what I was expecting it to be. But I wasn’t expecting to need it so much. So what if it’s designed specifically to remind us of the humanity that should be inherent in all of us. So what if it’s designed to trigger compassion and amplify the beauty of the human spirit. Those aren’t bad things—and that’s a good thing to be reminded of once in a while.