“Friends are the family you choose,” Shia LaBeouf’s ruffian Tyler tells his new friend Zak (Zack Gottsagen) early in The Peanut Butter Falcon, a tender and emotionally grounded film despite the aggressively offbeat mid-2000s Sundance title.
Where a lesser indie dramedy might have drowned in such saccharine sentiments, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s auspicious feature debut works hard to earn them. In the process, the filmmakers, who have previously collaborated on documentary shorts, tell a well-trodden story of three American loners making the best out of their bad situations on the open road in a refreshingly earnest way, prioritizing character over quirk.
Gottsagen, a longtime performer with Down syndrome and former documentary subject of the filmmakers who had expressed frustration about the limited roles available for disabled actors, plays Zak as a young man in transition. Left entrusted to the state after being abandoned by his family, he’s been living out of a retirement home with his loving but ornery older roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) and in the care of overly protective staffer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
What sets the film apart from its indie odd couple brethren is the strength of the relationships, and the warmth of the cast
Designated a flight risk after an escape attempt, Zak lights out in pursuit of his personal Mecca, a probably non-existent wrestling school run by his old hero, a Macho Man Randy Savage knockoff who now goes by the more prosaic name Clint (Thomas Haden Church). Zak smuggles himself aboard outlaw Tyler’s shrimp boat just as the thirty-something with a traumatic past is fleeing some unsavoury associates, and before long they’re living their own Tom and Huck adventures off the coast of North Carolina, with Eleanor in pursuit.
The contours of the story are more than familiar, owing a debt not just to Mark Twain, who Tyler directly references, but also countless picturesque road movies about outsiders flung together into unlikely friendships, including contemporaries like Mud and Green Book. Try as the filmmakers might to anchor Tyler and Zak’s adventure in the peculiar saltwater territory that surrounds them, courtesy of their beautiful location photography, stark compositions, and strong sense of the region, they are not above resorting to indie film cliches like a folk-heavy soundtrack, bouts of cathartic shouting, and generic sad back stories for each of the main characters, to be overcome in unison rather than suffering in isolation.
What sets the film apart from its indie odd couple brethren is the strength of the relationships, and the warmth of the cast, who play off each other’s differing performance styles in inventive ways. LaBeouf and Church are particularly strong in scenes opposite the wildcard of Gottsagen, around whom the project was developed. Gottsagen is genuinely funny and unassuming in a part that could have played as the undignified projection of a pair of non-disabled writers, recalling the go-for-broke bluntness and mania of a young Matt Damon.
LaBeouf dials down the self-conscious brattiness of some of his earlier work for a weathered, sad performance as someone learning how to reinvest his brotherly energy after a time spent in solitude. There’s a great straightforwardness to their scenes together that speaks to the actors’ apparent real-life friendship. Church, even more pleasantly rumpled than in his Academy Award nominated turn in Sideways, where he was plenty dishevelled already, invests his one-time guru with a weary resignation and kindness that cuts through his man-behind-the-curtain mythos.
What the disability community, and the Down syndrome community in particular, will make of the film’s treatment of Zak’s quixotic quest remains to be seen. This is more than can be said for the average disability melodrama, which doesn’t bother to cast disabled performers and typically resorts to either curing or killing their characters for the benefit of another character’s personal growth. Not so here, though the film indulges in its share of tropes.
In building their story’s architecture around Gottsagen’s unique presence, and in calling on him to stand his ground in meaty dialogue exchanges against Dern and Church, Nilson and Schwartz allow his character to flourish as more than just a loveable innocent, even if they resort too often to predictable scenes where Tyler and Eleanor discuss his fate while Zak sits forlornly and out of focus in the background. It’s to their credit as well as Gottsagen’s that despite these blips, Zak doesn’t get reduced to merely an object of care, and is allowed instead to have a full stake in wherever he’s going, whether it’s to wrestling notoriety or the more mundane pleasures of a chosen family.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens across the country Aug. 23.