It’s debatable which film gave birth to the modern buddy picture as we know it. On the literary front, though, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are largely responsible for bringing the buddy formula to western audiences. Whether it was intentional or not, road trip comedies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Midnight Run owe a fair deal to author Mark Twain. The buddy formula may be well-established now, but if Twain taught us anything, it’s that two strong characters can make even the most familiar setups fresh. The Peanut Butter Falcon was directly inspired by Huck Finn, but the two leads mold it into one of 2019’s most original movies.
Zack Gottsagen plays Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who’s deemed unfit to take care of himself. With no family left, Zak is put in a retirement home where he’s looked after by a nurturing staffer named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Zak clearly hasn’t been exposed to much modern media, as he continually rewatches a VHS tape made by a retro wrestler known as the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Just like he did in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bruce Dern makes the most out of a small role as the old timer who helps Zak fly the coop. Zak sets out to attend his idol’s wrestling school with nothing put the clothes on his back… well, actually, he escapes wearing nothing but his underwear.
Shia LaBeouf is an easy target given his role in the Transformers movies, legal troubles, and infamous “Do It” YouTube video. When he commits to a solid role, however, LaBeouf has exemplified the makings of a young John Cusack or even Nicolas Cage. We’re reminded why LaBeouf made the leap from Disney Channel to feature film in The Peanut Butter Falcon. As Tyler, LaBeouf plays a loner who’s forced to go on the run after pissing off the wrong people. Upon discovering Zak in his boat, Tyler reluctantly decides to let him tag along down the river.
Like all buddy movies, Zak and Tyler initially don’t get along, but come to find that they go together like peanut butter and bananas. In Tyler’s case, he’s impressed to find that Zak is a wanted man. While Zak isn’t a criminal, the state certainly treats him like a prisoner who needs to be distanced from society. Tyler teaches Zak how to spread his wings and his rebellious spirit even rubs off on Eleanor, who later find herself swept up in their misadventure. Although Eleanor means well, she believes Zak requires constant supervision. As a charming romance blossoms between her and Tyler, however, she realizes that to imprison Zak would be like caging a falcon.
LaBeouf and Gottsagen are so natural in their roles that it never feels like they’re acting, making for the most genuine onscreen friendship since Booksmart. Between Suspiria, Bad Times at the El Royale, and her delightful work here, we can officially forget Johnson was ever in those Fifty Shades movies. The screenplay by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz is sincere in its representation of the mentally challenged without coming off as forced or manipulative. In a way, you could say that The Peanut Butter Falcon does for Down syndrome what Rain Man did for autism. Some may be turned off by is obscure title, but as the movie shows us, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Anyone who does will be missing out on a warm, funny, and uplifting journey.