Someday you’ll meet someone quirky who considers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s audience-pleasing The Peanut Butter Falcon their favorite movie of all time. That choice wouldn’t be disgraceful; like the star Zack Gottsagen, this movie is on its own wavelength.
Gottsagen’s Zak introduces himself: “I am a Down’s Syndrome person.” He’s stubby, stubborn, and he wins you over fast with the strength of his own agenda and his willingness to carry it out. Using a special-needs actor could be considered problematic—a question of exploitation and how deep the performance goes. However, such casting is always better than having a normally abled actor pretending to be differently abled, or what novelist Bruce Wagner famously termed “the perennial audience-pleaser and vainglorious actor’s showcase staple.” (Sean Penn may some day live down I Am Sam, the subject of a devastating monologue by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder.)
This Zak is a fan of professional wrestling and one vintage wrestler in particular, the SaltWater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who he watches repeatedly on a VHS tape. This obsession spurs his plan to flee the coastal North Carolina old folks’ home where he’s being kept. One night, he gives staff the slip with the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern). Dern does some superior codgering, and he’s infectiously amusing here. One by one, they take away pleasures from the old, but Dern makes it look like the pleasure of defying authority is the best of them all.
Zak flees at night in his underwear, stowing away in the boat of another fugitive, Tyler (Shia LaBoeuf), a hard-luck, broken-hearted crab poacher; on Tyler’s trail are a couple of bad bastards (a formidable John Hawke and the rapper Yelawolf).
Tyler and Zak become traveling companions, rafting south on the wide, flat Pamlico Sound: ankle-deep wetlands you can walk on as if you’re Jesus. The pair is intended to look like Huck and Jim, but the Mark Twain side is hard to perceive, despite Zak’s keen ad libs. (“Stay cool!” Zack says in parting to someone who isn’t exactly the coolest ice cube in the refrigerator.) As a road trip movie, it’s more like The Last Detail done watery. The two southward-bound runners are at last joined by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who tended to Zak at the nursing home and who is responsible for tracking him down. In her scene at a gas station, smilingly rebuffing greasy Tyler’s elaborate compliments, Johnson shows she has more than enough self-amusement to survive the various ordeals she writhed through in the 50 Shades of Gray series.
Directors Nilson and Schwartz built the cuteness in from the title on down (the name is Zak’s unusual choice for a wrestler’s nom de guerre). The Peanut Butter Falcon is sometimes as gooshy as its namesake food. Moments that don’t quite work include a baptism by a profane junkyard lay-reverend. And there’s a final magical realist moment of triumph that isn’t set up perfectly.
That said, the Outer Banks waterscapes make The Peanut Butter Falcon funky and appealingly summery; it’s like seeing coastal Louisiana in a movie for the first time. LaBeouf will never be mistaken for a hotdog Transformer stooge again. His Tyler is seasoned by lingering regret from that session of weird public penance LaBeouf did a few years back. Self-inflicted shame-ordeals or shoemaking, you never know what’ll nourish an actor. LaBoeuf nails this wispy tale together. There are worse things you can say about a film than it’s like Beasts of the Southern Wild if Frank Darabont directed it.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Starring Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBoeuf and Dakota Johnson. (PG-13) 93 minutes.