Heart in the Age of Cynicism – The Peanut Butter Falcon

Every so often, a movie comes along that restores your faith in the transformative power of film. Roger Ebert once described it as an empathy machine, “Art is the closest we can come to understanding how a stranger really feels.” The Peanut Butter Falcon is the perfect blend of humor and heart to close out a summer filled with a lot of redundant and uninspiring cinema. 

When it comes time for me to put together my year-end film awards, Breakthrough Director(s) is easily one of my favorite categories. No matter the level of success there is an intangible quality present in a first feature film that exudes the creative essence of the filmmaker. The previous two years were loaded with quality debuts, both from relative newcomers and from familiar faces taking their first turn in the director’s chair. While 2019 has had no shortage of first-time offerings, there have been fewer notable standouts this year (Olivia Wilde, Jose Penna, Robin Bissell). As summer comes to a close and the awards season contenders begin to get released, it was nice to see more new talent on display.

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Writer/Director combo Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz had previously worked together on a couple of documentary projects but this is the first time the pair have taken on a full-length feature film. When it came to telling this story, they didn’t take the ethereal approach. The screenplay is honest and that’s where the appeal comes from. Sure, the script utilized a lot of humor based around one of the main characters having down syndrome but it wasn’t exploitative. There was a tremendous amount of attention paid to the character’s humanity and his aspirations. In fact, the film was honored by the Ruderman Family Foundation with its Seal of Authentic Representation for the accurate depiction of a person with disabilities. That’s why the movie has such a big and accessible heart. Weaving those interpersonal stories together and examining those motivations made for a strong and clear narrative with an underdog story you can’t help but cheer for. Much of the adventurous ambition reminded me of Mark Twain’s novels centering around Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, which surely provided inspiration for this expedition through the modern American South.   

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Beyond the scope of the adventures, there was a friendship at the forefront of those Twain novels and the same can be said for this movie. While it is the story of two very different young men escaping their past lives, it’s also very much about how they come together for a common purpose and how that goal solidifies their bond. The story was built around Zack Gottsagen who had spent a lot of time with the filmmakers before the idea for the film was brought to concept. He plays a version of himself, a young man living with Down syndrome and stuck living as a ward of the state. His thirst for independence and passion for professional wrestling are the catalyst that set things in motion. Zack is both an emotional and moral compass for the story. He’s so incredibly fun to watch and cheer for but it’s his journey towards finding a family that is what it’s all really about. 

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The first piece of that puzzle comes in the form of a hard-luck fisherman turned outlaw named Tyler, played by Shia LeBeouf. Struck by personal tragedy and struggling with immense survivors’ guilt, Tyler is angry, scared and lost. On the run, his relationship with Zack doesn’t start off on the best of terms but the two begin to lean on one another as they make their way south. Despite what you may think of his life away from set, LeBeouf absolutely crushed this role with all his talent flooding out in one emotionally vulnerable character. This was a career-(re)defining performance in the purest sense. From volatile rage to pure warmth and compassion, this was the perfect role to showcase the full spectrum of this young man’s range. He was fantastic and it would be a shame if his name isn’t in the conversation for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor (depending on how the production company wants to handle things). His may be the best performance of the year as of right now and I’m glad to stand by that assessment. Come November, you can see him star in a movie he wrote based on his own experience called Honey Boy

Dakota Johnson was the other piece of that puzzle playing Eleanor, a friend and caretaker at the facility Zack runs away from. This was a good role for her since she serves as the counterpoint to the approach taken by Tyler. While both characters care about Zack, the filmmakers were acutely aware of the two philosophies at play when it comes to caring for special needs individuals. Johnson’s character is in that role of protector, so preoccupied with keeping Zack safe that she overlooks what it means for him to have a life. You can see her struggling with that realization as she grapples with Tyler and her employer over how to help Zack. She has strong chemistry with LeBeouf that helps fuel the whole thing and it becomes fairly easy to see that three of these individuals genuinely care for each other, on and off the screen. Her newest project The Friend just recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and should be released theatrically before the end of 2019. 

This film has an exceptional supporting cast as well. Thomas Hayden Church plays Zack’s wrestling hero Salt Water Redneck. Bruce Dern has a small role as Zack’s roommate at the senior care facility and John Hawkes plays Duncan, a ruthless crab fisherman who’s hunting down Tyler after the two cross paths early in the story. Any pro wrestling fans from the 80s and 90s will certainly recognize Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley who have cameos as backyard wrestlers. You can also find Yelawolf making his feature film debut as Ratboy, Duncan’s right-hand man.

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Cinematographer Nigel Bluck really shot a gorgeous film to complement this story, especially when it came to the wide establishing shots. A large part of the appeal comes with the adventure aspect and showcasing the environment was a big part of making the journey tangible. The film was shot on location in Savannah, Georgia and made sure to highlight the unique geographical features of the area. From the Atlantic Ocean to the journey down the river to the surprise baptism, water played a large role thematically throughout the film and Bluck did a great job using it as a backdrop. The reflective qualities of the surface made for a beautiful palette to paint this picture. 

As of right now, this is easily one of the year’s best films. You’d have to be made of stone to watch this movie and not feel its heartwarming effects. The Peanut Butter Falcon is understandably off the radar coming at the tail end of the summer season but, in many ways, it’s the perfect summer movie. It’s been in wide release for a couple of weeks at this point but it’s the perfect counter-programming for the current slate of late summer movies.

Recommendation: This is the kind of film everyone should see, regardless of any preconceived notions. 

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