“THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON” — 3½stars — Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church; PG-13 (for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking); in general release; running time: 93 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Set in North Carolina’s atmospheric Outer Banks, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is the charming story of two men on the run for very different reasons.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. Since he has no family, and the area is short on accommodations, Zak has been living in a senior assisted living facility. His roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) is a nice enough old guy, willing to put up with Zak watching his favorite old wrestling VHS tape constantly, but Zak longs to bust out of Dodge and realize his wrestling dreams.
After an early escape attempt fails, a facility employee named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) labels Zak a flight risk, but with a little help from Carl, he lights off into the night in nothing more than his tighty-whities. The plan: head to Aiden, home of his wrestling idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who supposedly hosts a school for aspiring wrestlers.
Not far away, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a crab boat fisherman who just lost his job and blames himself for his older brother Mark's (Jon Bernthal) death. He’s also had some bad encounters with a pair of rival fishermen in the area, Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf). After setting fire to their gear after an argument on the dock, Tyler steals a boat and decides to head for Florida, fearing for his life.
While hiding from Duncan and Ratboy, Tyler discovers Zak stowed away in the boat, and after some choppy waters, the two team up to help each other to their different destinations. In the meantime, Eleanor’s supervisor sends her out to find Zak, and of course Duncan and Ratboy are still hot after Tyler.
As the pieces fall in place, “Peanut Butter Falcon” settles in as a Huck Finn-style journey as Zak and Tyler encounter different characters and circumstances on their travels. At one point, they meet up with a blind man who gives them some spiritual guidance and helps them put together a raft to assist in their quest, and the young men gradually form a tight bond as they live off the land.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaking team Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, “Peanut Butter Falcon” is a creature of its environment, bringing the coastal South to life with evocative visuals such as an early shot on a sandbar that makes Zak and Tyler look like they’re walking on water. At times, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” might remind viewers of a pair of 2012 films “Mud” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which also followed humble characters in coastal environments.
The quest story is undergirded by some strong performances by a notable cast, with veterans like Bruce Dern and John Hawkes supporting their younger cohorts in the leads. Gottsagen is a joy to watch, and his energy as Zak is a perfect foil for LeBeouf’s Tyler, who is a conflicted amalgam of grief, bitterness and kindness.
The total mix adds up to a kind and heartwarming movie about human relationships, and “The Peanut Butter Falcon” should provide a nice escape for audiences weary of our conflicted social media driven culture.
Rating explained: “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is rated PG-13, but does include a few instances of R-rated profanity, some derogative slurs, violence and some frightening moments.