Authenticity is something that I feel does not always come up as much as it should when discussing film. Sure, maybe a big blockbuster will not feel the need to create a lived-in environment for their world to take place in. Maybe it is okay if the characters are caricatures or lacking development if that is what it takes to take you along for the ride. I think this is an opportunity these movies miss out on because real authentic characters and worlds can make the smallest stories some of the most fascinating.
This can clearly be seen with The Peanut Butter Falcon, the story between two people who both feel like outliers in their worlds who come together to escape the worlds they are living in. While obviously there is more to the story, it is a simple one but the way directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz are able to capture the nature of the Outer Banks of North Carolina truly makes you feel beyond immersed in this world. You sense the stickiness every drop of sweat on the actors as well as you can imagine the smell of the water or the feel of the sand. As someone who has been spending the majority of their summer between Brooklyn and Manhattan, this is the closest I have gotten to going on vacation in a while.
That is before we even get into the central story that drives this entire film. We start out following Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man living with Down syndrome who is living in a retirement home and dreams of becoming a wrestler. He is able to escape and by chance ends up travelling with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman who is caught up with legal trouble and is looking to run away and start a better life for himself.
The film rests on these two’s relationship and story, how they meet and grow as friends despite coming from different backgrounds and having different personalities. I can’t say that this kind of character arc is entirely new for two characters to go on, it is far from that, but that is fine with me as long as the characters themselves are interesting enough for me to care about and this movie is lucky enough to have two phenomenal characters at its core. Shia LaBeouf has been slowly making a career comeback through his work on various indie projects and this might be his best performance to date. Tyler is someone with intense emotional baggage and a complicated moral compass. LaBeouf is able to capture this character perfectly, showing not only the pain that Tyler characters but the love that he has buried within him.
But the true star of The Peanut Butter Falcon is Zack Gottsagen, who is the heart and soul of every scene. Gottsagen is not just great for an actor with a disability. It is an incredible performance by an actor with a disability. Zak is not a simple character, he is funny at times but also has a deep desire to achieve something greater in his life and is determined to do that. Gottsagen captures Zak’s determined spirit effortlessly and is naturally charming and charismatic in doing so. Understandably, I was nervous with how the film would handle a lead character with Down syndrome as this is something I have not personally seen in a theatrically released feature. Fortunately, there is never a moment I felt was exploitive or cruel with its humor towards Zak and instead made him feel like the main character as he should be. And don’t just take my word for it. The Ruderman Family Foundation even gave this film its Seal of Authentic Representation as well.
I would also regret it if I did not mention Dakota Johnson’s work in the film which helps to add a interesting dynamic to the central character’s relationship. Her character, Eleanor, is a sweet retirement home worker who has grown close with Zak and goes out to find him when he runs away. She and Tyler have drastically different approaches to how they treat Zak and it raises questions on how we should best treat disabled people in our personal lives. While both characters treat him in different ways, you can see from both sides pretty clearly and leave not feeling that either is wrong in how they handle themselves.
Outside of the performances, as I had mentioned before I feel like I have been to the Outer Banks after watching this film. The cinematography is able to excellently capture the beauty of the swamps and rivers that are used to travel from location to location and even in the poorest communities is able to find beauty at every corner. The score and musical choices is consistent with choosing to stick with simpler string instruments, making many scenes feel like they are part of an indie country or folk song, which I could appreciate and further put you into the environment.
My main complaint would just be that this is a story that has been told before and because of that it was rarely surprising where the story ended up going. But even then there were moments I felt could have ended up feeling forced, like the romance between Tyler and Eleanor, but the movie chooses to not dwell on what could be there and instead focusing on what is important to the central story. I also do think the conclusion left a little to be desired and did not fully gel with the tone the rest of the movie had.
I am glad to see that this movie is getting love from everyone who seeks it out and I highly recommend that if you have not you do yourself a favor and see it. This is not an indie film that will turn most audiences off, instead I am positive anyone who chooses to see it will be happy they did. It is the sweetest, feel good film of the entire summer and worth your time to see if it comes to a theater near you.
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