★★★★ - OBSERVER
- Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen are a dream double act in this unlikely buddy movie -
It could have been so corny. The heart of The Peanut Butter Falcon beats to a rhythm that harks back to the ragged romanticism of a Huck Finn adventure, a time when outlaws were armed with charm rather than a tyre iron. Set in the North Carolina Outer Banks, it goes all out on bluegrass economy, a story plucked out on a twanging banjo and the audience’s heartstrings. But, perhaps against the odds, this shambling buddy movie really works.
It’s largely thanks to the casting. In the central role of Zak, a young man with Down’s syndrome who has a dream of a future bigger than the drab institution in which the authorities have parked him, is newcomer Zack Gottsagen. The role was written specifically for him after writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz were floored by his talent at a camp for actors with disabilities. Gottsagen delivers on that promise with an emotionally persuasive performance that anchors this backwater yarn.
Zak busts out of a care home in order to chase his ambition of attending the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck. On his trail is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a well-meaning volunteer who, like everyone else, tends to underestimate Zak. The one person who sees his potential is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman adrift who finds himself at war with the white-trash crab fishers who muscled in on his patch after his brother died.
Stinging, raw and sinking into a deep, swampy sadness, LaBeouf is tremendous. There’s a moment when he’s gazing at Eleanor from under the frayed brim of a baseball cap with such a naked, vulnerable expression that it’s as if he’s falling in love and getting his heart broken all at once.
Equally impressive is the sense of place that Nilson and Schwartz evoke. If not quite the bayou mysticism of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the film crafts its own distinctive world – a wetland badlands with its own deeply etched moral codes and systems of enforcing them.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing at Light House Petone & Cuba!