Filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz attempt to update the Mark Twain/Huck Finn formula with The Peanut Butter Falcon, a terribly sweet but ultimately middling folktale journey with some notable performances and an overall lack of impact.
Young Zak (newcomer Zack Gottsagen) is in his 20s and yearning to breathe free, but stuck in a North Carolina nursing home due to his Down Syndrome and a lack of appropriate facilities. He rightfully hates the place and repeatedly tries to escape from his caregiver Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), but when his roommate Carl (whose three whole lines are delivered by the legendary Bruce Dern) helps him flee by night, Zak finally puts some distance between himself and the glorified prison. Shortly after, he meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a ne'er-do-well fisherman sort reeling from the recent death of his brother through self-destructive theft and vandalism. Together, they decide to head south: to a North Carolina wrestling school for Zak, and to Jupiter, Florida, for Tyler.
Cue montages to southern folk and Americana tunes: the hasty building of a junker raft as Zak and Tyler form a brotherly bond each was sorely missing; a blind and black wise man practicing that old time relijun; and conflict in the form of violent fishermen wronged by Tyler and out for blood (John Hawkes and Yelawolf, both barely in the thing).
The Peanut Butter Falcon does well in quieter moments when LaBeouf and Gottsagen are playing off one another and given room to stretch out. But the needless addition of Johnson's love story angle feels trite and tired, particularly since LaBeouf's performance is top-notch and his character so much more interesting on his own or with Gottsagen. As Zak, Gottsagen is wonderful as well, his onscreen instincts sharp and a mix of shy vulnerability and lack of shame coming together for a naturally endearing combo.
Elsewhere, surprising turns from former pro wrestlers Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Mick "Mankind" Foley feel heartfelt if brief, and though Thomas Haden Church as Zak's hero the Saltwater Redneck is shockingly short—seemingly Church's role in Hollywood at large—it's almost moving enough to steal the show.
But it's honestly the sweeping panoramas of deltas, sounds and seaside grasslands that make the most impact, and any marquee could easily read "The Peanut Butter Falcon starring the Coastal American South." Sadly, though, its filmmakers seem to feel audiences wouldn't connect without the shoehorned hormones of good looking people, and the credits roll before we're ready, leaving precious little time to digest what happened and leaving more questions than answers.
+Gottsagen and LaBeouf; the landscapes
-The "love" story; the sudden ending
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Directed by Nilson and Schwartz
With Gottsagen, LaBeouf, Johnson and Dern
Regal (both locations), Violet Crown, PG-13, 93 min.