The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

A Roadside Attractions Production

Directors: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

Writers: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal

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Don’t meet your heroes is how the old saying goes. They’ll just let you down. Well, The Peanut Butter Falcon – from writer and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartzis – is here to say otherwise.

Zak (the show-stealing Zack Gottsagen), a young man with downs syndrome has been placed in the care of a nursing home by the state. When his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), helps him escape to chase his dream of attending wrestling school run by his hero, The Salt Water Redneck. To get there, he finds himself on an epic adventure with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a young outlaw on the run. The pair form an unlikely friendship and both grow and find something within them they didn’t know existed.

The Peanut Butter Falcon relies on a lot of plot coincidences and similarities between characters to work, however it isn’t so much about the what as the how of the story. It’s the kind of movie that feels like you’re being cuddled in a warm blanket. The warmth they discover together is brought to life with rich shots, flush with natural light.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny, free-spirited beauty captured on screen – the perfect picture of friendship brought to life through a rare bond between the leads actors. In The Peanut Butter Falcon, Tyler doesn’t just help Zak fly, together they give the feel-good movie of 2019 wings.

The film explore what it means to be a family and the different ways we can support each other. Tyler and Zak empower each other to find another side within themselves that they hadn’t seen. What’s even better is that this film about empowerment and family doesn’t feature an actor with downs syndrome, it empowers him to give an unforgettable performance.

A common theme throughout The Peanut Butter Falcon is the idea of family. The film’s three main characters all come from challenging family backgrounds. Zak ended up in the nursing home because he has no family that can adequately care for him. Meanwhile, Tyler is still grieving the loss of this brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), and getting into a lot of trouble as a result. Not to be forgotten, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) has her own difficult family background that I won’t spoil here.

When Zak and Tyler link up, Zak is a trouble-maker on the run. He’s cold and reluctantly allows Zak to tag along. It’s only when Zak is bullied to jumping in the water and Tyler jumps in to save him. That kickstarts the pair’s bond and starts their Twain-like adventure where they become more than friends.

What they discover is what Carl tells Zak as he escapes, “friends are the family you choose.” While all three feel like they’re out there alone facing down their demons and their struggles, the truth is that they have each other.

Zak is more concerned about the adventure and friendship, while Tyler is more concerned about survival and avoiding the fisherman looking for him to get their revenge. Tyler seems tough, but Zak sees through him and tells him “You’ve got a good guy heart. You can’t help it. You’re a hero.” And he is.

Tyler shows his kinder side, even pulling Zak across the river since Zak can’t swim. While Eleanor sees Zak as helpless and in need of help, Tyler sees his inner strength and feeds his confidence. He even helps train him for the wresting school and the hero Zak’s in search of. What the audience realizes is that the hero he’s needed has been right by his side on their whole adventure.

In the end, all three of the characters face their demons and help each other. They bring the best out of each other, and Zak feels central to all of it.

It would be easy to see the trailer for The Peanut Butter Falcon and see the film as a chance to highlight an actor with downs syndrome. And yes, the film does highlight Zack Gottsagen, but it also empowers him and shows him as a true star.

The directors met Gottsagen at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp for those with and without disabilities to come together. When they saw his acting talents, they promised to build a film around him despite having no experience. And 10 years later, they absolutely delivered in a big way.

The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t feel like a story that was created to let Gottsagen live a dream. It feels like a story that needed to be told and one he significantly elevates. He carries the light-hearted warmth of the story, even breaking Tyler’s cold heart. Zak the character makes Tyler and Eleanor see just what he’s capable of, and Zach the actor shows the audience just what he’s capable of. And it’s damn impressive.

While the script could have led to a cheesy film, The Peanut Butter Falcon avoids pitfalls other films could have easily fell into. It’s an impossibly sweet meditation on what it means to be a hero and empower those around you. To look beyond what we first see of each other and look for someone’s best attributes. With a free-spirited adventure story and the most heartwarming performances of the year The Peanut Butter Falcon soars. 

Brent Goldman is based in Brooklyn as a full time ad man and single dog father. His work also appears on Film Inquiry and he's always waiting for a new film from Behn Zeitlin.