The Peanut Butter Falcon has already proven to be a crowd-pleaser, winning a key Audience Award at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. It’s easy to see why. First-time writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met a charismatic young man named Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, at a camp for actors with disabilities and were inspired to build a screenplay around him. In time, their passion project attracted experienced producers and an impressive cast.
Gottsagen is an absolute natural on-camera, acing a role tailor-made for him. Zak has been abandoned by his family and taken in by a retirement home, where he’s looked after by a sympathetic caregiver (Dakota Johnson). In spite of his comfortable surroundings he is determined to escape, egged on by his elderly roommate, an wily rascal played by Bruce Dern, who improves any movie he’s in.
Zak’s dream is to travel along the Southern waterways and meet his hero (Thomas Haden Church), a onetime TV personality who operates a training camp for aspiring wrestlers. With no money or resources, he hooks up with another troubled soul on the lam, well played by Shia LaBeouf. A slacker and casual criminal, he’s burned all his bridges—literally—and is being pursued by two fishermen (John Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf) who are out to get him. .
The result is a combination buddy/road movie with twists, turns and a roster of colorful characters. As it reaches its climax it becomes increasingly clear that this is a fable, a quest in the tradition of Don Quixote, about a character who refuses to give up on his dreams and attracts people who want to help him reach his goal.
To pick the script apart for lack of credibility is to miss the point. The Peanut Butter Falcon requires the viewer to surrender to the movie without complaint, especially toward the end as loose ends are tied up with remarkable ease. I’ll admit that I had trouble with some of that, but what’s more important is the way the movie disarmed me, daring me not to empathize with its characters and their journey. In a time of rampant cynicism it dares to offer a sweet, sincere story with a happy ending. No wonder audiences are responding to it.