The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:


Flies High

Dakota Johnson
Dakota Johnson
Roadside Attractions
 97 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByTyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson
The Peanut Butter Falcon

The road trip has been a staple of American cinema for decades, at least since Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert hung out in It Happened One Night. The literary forebears of the road trip film date back even farther, with Mark Twain penning perhaps the best-known classic version of the idea in Huckleberry Finn. By now, you would think that movies would have exhausted every variant on the theme, but, somehow, in the summer of 2019, an independent film with the unlikely title of The Peanut Butter Falcon manages to go back to Mark Twain for atmosphere and inspiration, which the filmmakers turn into something truly marvelous.


Most road trip films require two mismatched travelers, and The Peanut Butter Falcon is no exception. One of them is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck North Carolina crab fisherman who lost his license after the death of his brother (Jon Bernthal, seen in flashbacks) and is now reduced to stealing from other crabbers like Duncan (John Hawkes). The bad blood between Tyler and Duncan escalates until an angry Tyler burns down Duncan’s equipment and flees in his boat.


In most road trip movies, Tyler would be the character who plays off the straight man actor. But The Peanut Butter Falcon isn’t most movies. Tyler discovers that he has a stowaway on his boat, a young man with Down syndrome who has run away from the nursing home where he’s been living. Zak (Zack Gottsagen, who actually has Down syndrome) has dreams of being a professional wrestler like his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who runs a wrestling school further downstate. When Tyler’s boat finally breaks down, he and Zak continue on foot, and the initially peeved Tyler soon develops a friendship with Zak (see clip below). The title of the movie refers to the “wrestling character name” that Tyler gives Zak.


While Tyler and Zak, with little food or money between them, are heading to the wrestling school, others are looking for the two runaways. First, there’s Duncan and one of his flunkies, who want Tyler to either pay him back for his loss or pay in blood or both. Then, there’s Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a counselor at the nursing home. She has tried to look out for Zak ever since he was sent there because of a lack of other suitable facilities. She now fears that Zak may be sent to a rehab center with drug addicts and hookers and wants to get him back safely before there’s official trouble.


The Peanut Butter Falcon is the brainchild of two relatively inexperienced filmmakers, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, who wrote and directed the movie. After meeting Gottsagen, they decided to structure a film around the young actor, and they set it in familiar environs (although set in North Carolina, the movie was actually filmed in Georgia). Even though Gottsagen and his quest to become an actor served as the inspiration for the movie, it’s his actual acting talent that makes the film so successful.


Most movies that would feature a developmentally challenged actor in a pivotal role would either cast an actor of average intelligence in the role and have him put on a performance, or, if they used an actual person with Down syndrome, would reduce him to the equivalent of a highly trained animal, periodically performing amusing tricks but doing little else. Nilson and Schwartz don’t do that. Zak has problems and limitations, but he is a fully developed, very likable character. Zak is friendly and cheerful, but he also stands by Tyler when needed. When it comes time for him actually to demonstrate his wrestling ability, he acts appropriately scared when he learns that he’s fighting a character played by the legendary real-life wrestler, Jake “The Snake” Roberts.


Gottsagen isn’t the only performer acting up a storm here. Shia LaBeouf delivers probably his best performance ever as he tries to exorcise his own personal demons on the trip. Tyler carries a great deal of guilt over his brother’s death (he fell asleep at the wheel one night leading to the crash that killed his brother), and he views Zak as his chance to play the older brother. Fittingly, the movie doesn’t give him a single breakthrough moment where he miraculously straightens himself out. Instead, the realization feels more authentic.


A crucial moment in the movie, and for the audience’s perception of Zak, occurs when Eleanor finally locates Zak and Tyler, who have been on their own for several days. She frets over Zak as if he were a child, worrying about whether he could get a sunburn. Tyler, on the other hand, recognizes Zak’s abilities and deflects Eleanor’s concerns. After that scene, Eleanor, to no one’s surprise, winds up going with Zak and Tyler on their quest, and it sets the stage for the rest of the film.


Like Huckleberry Finn a century earlier, a good bit of The Peanut Butter Falcon details the adventures of Tyler and Zak on their way to the wrestling school. The filmmakers have a good eye for casting the smaller roles in the film, and an encounter with a gun-toting, blind preacher (Wayne DeHart) leads to one of the most enjoyable interludes in the movie. In a scene straight out of Huckleberry Finn, Tyler and Zak wind up building a raft from scrap and heading down the coast in the raft towards the wrestling school.


The fable-like nature of The Peanut Butter Falcon becomes a bit too obvious in the wrestling-themed climax of the movie, with one shot in particular that seems to have come from a completely different type of film. Otherwise, however, the film feels incredibly natural, buoyed by excellent work from LaBeouf and Gottsagen, as well as reliable support from old pros like Church and Bruce Dern (as Gottsagen’s nursing school roommate). In a way, the movie’s low budget and relatively inexperienced filmmakers are a plus. I can easily see a major studio turning this film into an “important” message movie, instead of what it is, a tale of two young men trying to find themselves. The fact that one of them has Down syndrome eventually proves somewhat incidental. What’s not incidental however, is the quality of the film; it’s one of the best of the year.

In this clip, Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen learn a secret handshake.

Read other reviews of The Peanut Butter Falcon: 

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) on IMDb