Most movies with Down syndrome characters treat them with kid gloves, painting them as lovable but limited people. But in The Peanut Butter Falcon Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is anything but a sweet sidekick. He’s a young man with a dream of becoming a pro wrestler, and to that end he escapes from the residential home where he’s being housed, and teams up with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) a man on the run from some pretty angry people he’s wronged. What follows is a funny odd couple/road flick with lots of heart as Zak and Tyler elude their chasers and share an adventure in the wetlands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Zak lives in an old age home because lacking family or legal guardianship that’s the only place the state could find for him. He rooms with Carl (Bruce Dern) and spends a lot of time watching and rewatching a tape of his favorite wrestling star, “The Salt Water Redneck,” who advertises he has a school and it’s not that far away. Zak has tried to run away before and been caught, but with Carl’s help he finally makes it and he hides out in Tyler’s boat. Zak escaped wearing only his underwear and has no money or provisions. And when Tyler discovers him, all he wants to do is get rid of him. Of course that doesn’t happen and he reluctantly agrees to help Zak get to the town where the Salt Water Redneck’s school is located since it’s kind of on the way to where he’s going anyway. And on their trek through swamps and backroads Tyler, who has some dark memories of his brother’s death haunting him, warms to and begins to enjoy Zak.
Hot on Zak’s tail though is the lovely Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who works at the home and clearly cares about his well being. She runs into Tyler in a convenience store. It’s not exactly a meet cute, but definitely foreshadows a future relationship. But he keeps mum on Zak who is hiding in the corn field outside. Tyler has a serious beef with some fellow fishermen and that’s why he’s on the run. Throughout the film the threat of violence keeps him skirting the main roads and towns, just steps ahead of them. But you know he can’t do it forever.
Shia LaBoeuf plays Tyler with a perfect mix of heart and pain. But it is Zack Gottsagen who makes the film sing. His Zak is funny and driven and his comedic timing couldn’t be better. Good performances from the rest of a top-notch cast make The Peanut Butter Falcon a surprisingly engaging film. The screening I went to was organized by a couple of local Down syndrome organizations, and while I am sure that many in that audience appreciated the film on another level, it is a thoroughly entertaining film from a comedy/adventure viewpoint as well.