The Peanut Butter Falcon is grounded by earnest but inept filmmaking
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a unique film in that its star, Zack Gottsagen, has Down syndrome, and because the two directors/writers, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, made the movie specifically for their friend to be given an opportunity that would otherwise be unlikely. You’d have to be one hard-hearted person not to be moved just by those circumstances.
Gottsagen plays Zak, a ward of the state of North Carolina who’s forced to live in a retirement home because it can provide the best care for him. He longs to escape, though, specifically to a wrestling school farther south run by The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Aided by his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), he makes a break for it, soon running into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who’s on the lam for a completely different reason.
Tyler agrees to help Zak get to the wrestling school, and the two are soon trekking their way through fields and on rivers to make their way there. On their trail is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who looks after Zak at the retirement home, and Duncan (John Hawkes), a fisherman who has a beef with Tyler.
The biggest reason the film works to any degree is the performances of and chemistry between Gottsagen and LaBeouf. Gottsagen has an affability and charm that is immediately apparent, and it becomes even more so after he teams up with LaBeouf. Unlike most other characters, Tyler treats Zak with respect, and LaBeouf’s performance is the lynchpin for making the character and relationship believable.
What becomes very clear as the film goes along, however, is the lack of experience of the filmmakers. The journey of Zak and Tyler is haphazard at best, giving them no clear direction. As a consequence, they meet up with other characters at random, with little or no connection between how any of them got to that particular place. It’s a shortcut way of filmmaking that’s big on significant moments but very light on narrative coherence.
For a film led by first-time feature filmmakers, it’s absolutely bonkers how many well-known people are in it. In addition to the five actors in the main cast, veteran wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and rapper Yelawolf all make appearances. Jon Bernthal, who’s arguably the best actor in the cast, was somehow convinced to show up for a non-speaking role as Tyler’s brother, Mark, a move that makes zero sense for either the filmmakers or Bernthal.
There’s never a point in The Peanut Butter Falcon where you’re not rooting for Zak to succeed, but the film as a whole doesn’t come close to delivering the emotional release it needs.