Shia LaBeouf delivers his most heartfelt performance yet in the Mark Twain-inspired fable “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz. Nilson and Schwartz conceived of the film while volunteering at an organization for people with disabilities where they met Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome who always wanted to star in a movie. And thus, the tale of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” was born, a classic journey through the wilderness where the heroes ultimately find what they were looking for within themselves — and each other.
Gottsagen, a performer with natural comedic timing and the ability to deliver funny and unexpected punchlines, stars as Zak, a young man unfairly confined to life at an old folks’ home. With no family or guardians, Zak has been ordered by the state to live there, though he dreams and schemes of escape plans. He has a singular goal in mind: to travel to the wrestling school of his hero the Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose VHS tape he has worn out. One night, he makes his escape, clad only in his skivvies, and ends up in the skiff of Tyler (LaBeouf), a rogue, rascally crab fisherman who has his own set of problems to run from.
It takes the defensive and scared Tyler some time to warm up to Zak, but his new road dog’s adventurous and sunny spirit cracks his hard shell, and nothing can rend the bond that forms between these two. They’re a quirky, modern-day Tom and Huck, who travel by raft through the waterways of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, looking for safety, salvation and the Salt-Water Redneck, of course.
Nilson and Schwartz use a naturalistic, rough-hewn style utilizing off-the-beaten path locations and an easy tempo that leaves space for the moments of spontaneity that reveal the true connection shared by these actors, not just their characters. During a respite on the raft, Zak offers Tyler his future birthday wishes, and the way that LaBeouf’s body sags with relief and gratitude, falling into an easy embrace, overwhelmed by this simple but profound gesture, transcends the conceit of the film itself. From such an instinctual and immediate actor as LaBeouf, that emotion leaps off the screen, and it seems a gesture of authentic, genuine love for his screen partner.
The unique chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen is special to watch, but there’s also an electricity that courses between LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, who co-stars as Eleanor, the caretaker in hot pursuit of Zak. Despite his impressively dirty appearance and the imminent danger he’s in from the local crab fishermen on his tail, the incorrigible Tyler can’t help but flirt with Eleanor at a gas station, proving LaBeouf to be the preeminent supermarket seducer in cinema (see also: “American Honey”). Though he has a rough exterior, Tyler reveals himself to be startlingly tender, and you root for the romance to blossom.
LaBeouf brings the soul to “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” while Gottsagen brings the spirit. He has an undeniably charming screen presence, and the actor takes to this starring role with gusto, proving that Nilson and Schwartz’s instincts about him were right. He more than stands up to the task of movie star, and the filmmakers have crafted the perfect vehicle to showcase both his talents, and the surprising connection with his co-star LaBeouf.
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
Playing: Landmark, ArcLight Hollywood, Regal Edwards Westpark, Rancho Niguel 8