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LFF 2019 Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon – “A wonder to behold”

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It’s not often that a film conveys the feeling of being really dirty. Not the gritty city realism of a kitchen-sink drama, nor anything romantically unsavoury, but a movie coated in dry, honest-to-good earth. The Peanut Butter Falcon conjures such a sense of musty North Carolina, that viewers will be checking beneath their fingernails for sand. This indie melodrama is a wonder to behold, full of characters who have neither the time nor the income to buy fancy soap, and why should they when there’s life to be lived?

The film focuses on Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a man too young to be living in a retirement home, and who has thus becomes its resident (and only) hell-raiser. Caseworker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) keeps a close eye on Zak and all of her worries about his confinement are confirmed, when – with the help of his best buddy Carl (Bruce Dern, great, but underused) – he escapes and runs away. While on the lam, Zak hides in a trashy fishing boat belonging to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). Tyler is a crabman involved in a turf war with Duncan (the scrawniest John Hawkes) and his pal Ratboy, a name conveying everything about the fishing business. Living hand to mouth, Tyler is haunted by tragic memories and initially doesn’t take kindly to his stowaway. Together, the two bond over a joint need for escapism, and when Tyler learns of Zak’s obsession with 80s wrestler The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church in a role he was born to play) they make a plan to help Zak meet his idol, with Eleanor on their trail.

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A cast of this calibre working from a sentimental (but never saccharine) script with more than a passing nod to Huckleberry Finn, means that The Peanut Butter Falcon was always going to be a treat. As well as packing in action sequences and a lot of buddy-movie humour, the film is visually intriguing, as viewers watch the strange pairing weave their way through the wide expanses of the Outer Backs, a series of beautiful, isolated barrier islands on the US coast. Co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz clearly love the area and frequently frame Zak and Tyler against a breathtaking natural backdrop. This environment becomes a part of the story, in turns echoing the hopelessness of poverty-stricken middle America, while also providing the characters with the natural resources required to necessitate their collective spirit of invention. There are some glorious wide shots that showcase the festering freedom that Zak so deeply craves.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is also, essentially, a slow-chase movie with Johnson’s Eleanor relentlessly pursuing her charge. The care she feels for Zak shines through in Johnson’s performance, but then this is a divine cast. LaBoeuf imbues Tyler with the gamut of emotions and holds the camera’s gaze throughout the movie, a difficult task when his scene partner is such a sweet, authentic find. It could be an accident, but like many new actors, Gottsagen treats greats like Thomas Haden Church and Bruce Dern as equals, enabling audiences to reserve all reverence for his witty performance – he is a delight in a role that provides him with a heavy workload. It is further testament to the directors that the movie makes room for both Zak’s and Tyler’s interconnected stories. Their tender manly connection builds so sweetly, is not rushed and never feels like fiction. The only small disappointment is that Eleanor’s reason for looking after Zak in the first place is never explored.

With echoes of Little Miss Sunshine, this film knows how enjoyable it is to root for a plucky hero on a difficult journey, accompanied by an assortment of oddball characters. What could have been a rehash of a classic story is rendered fresh by the scope of talent on screen, the nicely-plotted story and the feel-good factor conjured by Zak’s pursuit of his specific goals. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a perfect distillation of screen tenderness, a captivating tale of small-town desire and freedom, and a tonic for the eyes.

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