★★★★ - EMPIRE
- Early moments from The Peanut Butter Falcon — and indeed its title— could be grafted straight from an early Taika Waititi comedy circa Boy or Eagle Vs Shark. Set in a dozy Richmond retirement home, aspiring wrestler Zak (Gottsagen) enjoys theatrical escape from his heavily regulated lifestyle by watching old videos of his favourite fighter, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). When the urge to join Redneck’s coveted wrestling school becomes too powerful to resist, Zak orchestrates an oily escape, and armed only with his tighty whities, makes the fateful dive into Tyler’s (LaBeouf) neighbouring boat.
This Mark Twain-esque first feature from directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz isn’t LaBeouf’s most erratic career choice, but it’s certainly not his most predictable, which is evident as he plods cautiously through its opening scenes. Thankfully such reticence vanishes quickly — at first a feral, somewhat stoic extension of the swampland, Tyler’s character unfurls as his bond with Zak deepens.
Turning the riverbed into a playground, he fights with his new friend like a bear cub, and flirts easily with Dakota Johnson’s wary care worker, who sadly isn’t afforded much room for a story of her own. Gottsagen’s performance also becomes increasingly organic, throwing delightfully misused frat-boy slang at inappropriate junctures in their journey.
Any peril is kept largely off screen — a wise decision as the hotfooted rival fishermen are the weakest plot point — and allows the central relationship to breathe against the hazy riverside vistas (captured intuitively by True Detective cinematographer Nigel Bluck). When danger does comes knocking — abruptly ending the slow-burn sense of adventure — it’s bittersweet, a hero’s moment followed by a hasty conclusion. For the meatier cut of The Peanut Butter Falcon however, this is a lovingly performed ode to friendship that never once feels patronising or over-performed.
This is LaBeouf at his best, stripped down to his bare elements and bookended by two luminous performances from Gottsagen and Johnson. A lightly flawed script may lack Huckleberry Finn epicness, but warms the heart with its parental tenderness.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing at Light House Petone & Cuba!