The Peanut Butter Falcon shows us two young men on the run, but for different reasons. Tyler (Shia LeBeouf) is a broken and battered crab fisherman who pisses off the wrong dudes. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is an ebullient soul with Down Syndrome. His wanderlust brings him to break out of his drab nursing home and take to the backroads. Somewhere in the Carolina swamps, these fugitives will form a ragged union: Where Tyler stumbles from his demons, Zak desperately wants to dance with a few of his own.
Falcon not only outflanks the expected schmaltz and clichés, it riffs on them for dramatic effect: The biggest thing holding Zak back isn’t his genetic disorder, but how the people around him respond to it. Most of his caregivers treat him with either an odious indifference (“Lights out, retard!”), or with ham-fisted politeness. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a member of the latter camp, watches with growing consternation as Zak enlists his elderly housemates to help Shawshank him out of the nursing home. Zak grows bolder and more indignant with each attempt: He isn’t an invalid, and he isn’t at the end of his life. Eventually, a wily old man (Bruce Dern, looking like he could lead a Cocoon remake) helps Zak bend the bars of his window and wriggle his way to freedom.
Meanwhile, Tyler sits out on the docks, his face looking hollow and haggard. He drinks, stirs up trouble, and stews on traumatic memories of his older brother. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, Tyler and Zak fill a symbiotic role in each other’s lives: Tyler treats Zak like a functioning adult, while Zak offers judgment-free loyalty and friendship. Both actors are natural and nuanced, making their inevitable brotherhood feel earned.
The movie wisely mirrors Tyler in its treatment of the Zak character: He never feels like a filmmaking gimmick. In fact, writer-directors Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz go out of their way to flesh him out as a three-dimensional human, with not only real anger and ambition, but a sense of clever mischief that only grows throughout the story. Gottsagen is a revelation in the role, engendering real empathy for his character’s plight. Every time some slobbering hick slurs him as a retard, the very word burns in the ears like acid.
If Tyler’s escape is a journey of redemption, then Zak’s can be found in a specific destination: Somewhere out there, a washed-up pro wrestler (Thomas Haden Church) hosts a training camp for aspirants. It’s Zak’s dream to enter the ring as a heel, The Peanut Butter Falcon. This supplies him with a liberating alter-ego, and an outlet for all his bubbling frustrations. It also sets up the final act of the film with an angle that might surprise you. But Falcon is a film of surprises, especially in how it takes what could’ve been a cheap, maudlin story and transforms it into consistently funny and moving entertainment.