The best road-trip movies have characters that go on journeys in more ways than one — physically, of course, but also metaphorically or spiritually.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” doesn’t really have much in the way of roads, per se. Filmed in and around Savannah, Ga., and taking place in North Carolina, the story is largely set among swamps and flowing rivers, and the film literally drips with a sense of place. But the film is a road trip movie in spirit, a modern day Mark Twain-style journey that’s a sweet, coming-of-age tale about friendship and finding strength in yourself, no matter what your “handicaps” — real or imagined — may be.
Eighteen-year-old Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has Down syndrome (as does Gottsagen in real life) and is living in a retirement home because there’s frankly nowhere else the state can send him. He’s enamored with professional wrestling, and hopes to meet his idol, the Salt Water Redneck, and attend his wrestling school in Florida.
Zak frequently tries to escape the home, much to the dismay of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), an aide working at the facility.
When he finally does, he stows away on a boat owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf in one of his finest performances), who goes on the run from some angry fisherman (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) prepared to do him harm. They chase him down the swamps, but Tyler somehow eludes them.
That’s when he discovers Zak, covered up in his boat. And Tyler doesn’t care why he’s there or what he’s doing, he just wants him out and away from him.
The two part ways, but not for long. Tyler reluctantly gives in and agrees to let Zak accompany him as they both make their way down south, Tyler to avoid capture and Zak to meet his idol in Florida.
Their differences make their pairing difficult at first. Tyler is clearly battling his own demons, and is gruff and barks orders. Zak tries his best, but knows he has limitations, which obviously frustrate him.
Slowly their friendship grows on the journey as they meet colorful characters along the way. Soon, Eleanor tracks them down and joins them to make sure Zak is properly taken care of.
But things aren’t what they seem when they reach Florida, and Zak must learn that realities can be harsh, and that that’s what being an independent adult sometimes means.
You might think it would be distracting to have an actor with Down syndrome as the lead role. But the part was written expressly for Gottsagen by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who also direct. They met Gottsagen six years ago at a camp for actors with disabilities, and “saw a chance to shine a light on the performer’s charisma, determination and self-confidence,” as production notes say. Gottsagen embodies the very spirit of the film.
It’s LaBeouf, though, who is the soul of it. He gives Tyler a kindness that isn’t there at first, as he slowly starts to warm to Zak, in no less than a brotherly way. He refuses to treat Zak like he has an impairment, and he refuses to let Zak think of himself that way, too. It’s a beautiful, shining performance that LeBeouf slips into effortlessly.
It’s his and Gottsagen’s chemistry, though, that is the heart of the film. They’re engaging, funny and familiar all at once.
Johnson also adds a sweetness to her role, without ever becoming saccharine. And her chemistry with LaBeouf is equally charming.
Directors Nilson and Schwartz keep the pacing swift. They clearly love the characters, and let them just be. The whole thing feels laid back and natural, befitting its southern setting.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” won the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a feel-good crowd pleaser that’s empowering, inspiring and never condescending.
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson
Written and directed by: Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Rated PG-13 for or thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking
Starts Friday, Aug. 23, at: AMC Northrock 14, Regal Warren East, Regal Warren West