More often than not, challenging the status quo is seen as a threat to stability or “creating division” rather than an attempt at meaningful change. And that’s the exact tension that Zak (Zack Gottsagen), the central character of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s film The Peanut Butter Falcon, presents to the people surrounding him; limited by perceptions of his disability, he lives a carefully controlled life, set up to avoid any and all conflict—until he decides to take life into his own hands, venturing out into the world to seek the thrills he had always been told he couldn’t experience. In the process, he creates plenty of instability and disruption for the indiscretion of independence, but his newfound family provides protection for him from both those who would uphold the status quo and the dangers of living outside of it.
In Richmond, VA, 22-year-old Zak lives in a residential retirement home under the care of a young woman named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). The state has relegated Zak to the home because of his Down syndrome, but Zak has big dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), watching his videos on repeat and scheming for his escape to find him. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a crab fisherman who recently lost his brother and, having caused some trouble among the unforgiving crabbing crowd, finds himself in danger and on the run. As if by destiny, one of Zak’s escape attempts succeeds, and he winds up stowing away on Tyler’s boat, linking the two men unto an unexpected and endearing friendship. Zak is determined to fulfill his dreams and find the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school, Tyler continues evading both his pursuers and past by trekking south, and Eleanor, forced by her boss to give chase alone, finds more than just her runaway ward and ultimately joins their adventure.
On this journey, Zak, Tyler and Eleanor each reexamine their own lives, eventually coming to embrace their new status as a “found family,” united against the troubling world around them. With this sweet narrative hook, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a bright adventure filled with laughter and heart that espouses the power of understanding each other amidst strife.
With its primary draw being its heartwarming relationships, The Peanut Butter Falcon could easily be made or broken on the actors’ performances. Fortunately, Zack Gottsagen is more than capable of carrying the film’s weight, giving a genuine and charismatic performance that uplifts the performances of those around him; as capable as LaBeouf and Johnson are, they especially shine when sharing the screen with Gottsagen. And, of course, it’s refreshing to see a disabled actor playing a disabled character amidst a continuing movement for more diverse and accurate representation in Hollywood.
This film also exudes an irresistible sense of warmth in every scene, blending comedy and heart in ways that may not be new, but are certainly effective. Tyler and Zak’s unlikely bond is humorous in a way that respects both characters, while also leaving room for tenderness and genuine pathos. While it can often feel like Eleanor, Tyler and Zak are positioned against an entire world that wishes them failure, the solace they find in each other (as cliché as it may sound) is genuinely touching. It may seem cheesy, but isn’t cheesiness often just sincerity that we don’t allow ourselves to take comfort in?
While they are uplifted by a solid cast, the characters of The Peanut Butter Falcon themselves feel a bit thin and, at some points, even lackluster. Eleanor, in particular, suffers from a lack of strong characterization in the script, as she is often driven primarily by Zak’s needs and her job rather than intrinsic motivations. Similarly, while Tyler and Zak’s bond blooms beautifully on screen, their motivations often feel weakly developed and uncomplicated. Tyler, for instance, has a tortured past that continually rears its head in flashbacks but, in the present, has only broad implications on his newfound brotherhood with Zak.
And while it’s a wonderful film, it’s certainly not a wildly original one; nothing much in The Peanut Butter Falcon’s narrative or cinematic style is new, and its reliance on beige-filtered rural scenery and a simple plot structure cause it to blend into the contemporary indie milieu. As heartwarming as it is, nothing here is breaking any boundaries or bringing much new to cinema. It feels like cinematic comfort food, for better or worse.
The past couple of years have been ones of increasing social and political strife—that much is evident—but this strife also serves as a linchpin for change. Divisions and turmoil abound, and yet The Peanut Butter Falcon posits that perhaps it is better to embrace a little uncertainty, a little instability or even a little strife in our lives in order to find a community that faces similar struggles to ourselves.
One of the most notable elements of the relationships formed between the film’s central trio is the way they protect themselves and each other from external pressures through their cobbled-together family unit. Zak faces ableism from both individuals and the system in which he is ensconced, but both Tyler and Eleanor seek to protect him from that (often in conflict themselves as to whether they are reinforcing that same discrimination through their “help”). Tyler is running from his guilt and sorrow over the death of his brother, finding a replacement brother in Zak and a potential romantic partner in Eleanor. Eleanor feels pressure to find Zak to appease her boss and follow protocols to which she feels indebted, but when she finds Zak with Tyler, she finds herself approaching Zak’s needs from a new angle, abandoning the empty duties she once thought she had.
While the characters in the film may not be facing a pandemic, bitterly divisive politics or social and civil unrest, the statewide problems for which they seek solace are no less pressing or real. For example, in 2014, CBS DC reported that the crab population in Virginia has been declining for years, hurting the crabbing business and leading to regulations that further impact profits. This informs Tyler’s milieu, as well as the desperation he and the other crabbers in the film feel just to make enough money to scrape by. Meanwhile, a 2016 PBS report notes that the state has spent the 2010s improving the services available to Virginians with disabilities, responding to the over-institutionalization of disabled individuals without caretakers and long waitlists for community-based options. Thus, both Eleanor and Zak find themselves in a system that, while improving, has been overwhelmed to the detriment of vulnerable populations for some time.
This is all to say that the characters of The Peanut Butter Falcon are dealing with problems far bigger than themselves, and it is only by finding personal connections that challenge these normative institutions that they can find comfort. While the film feels very personal and character-centered, it is dealing with issues that are institutional: both specific to the state of Virginia and in the more general, national scope. It’s all overwhelming, but that’s where the simplicity of The Peanut Butter Falcon’s story shines, as it allows audiences to see the personal side of these problems and the importance of finding community far outside of the systems that have failed them.
Outside of the stability of institutions, the film’s central trio is beset upon by phenomena outside of any one person’s control. But when they come together and forge a new path through life, they exchange certainty for freedom. It doesn’t come easily or quickly, however, and the family formed in the film doesn’t magically vanquish the problems of its members. In fact, despite a general feeling of joy hanging over the epilogue, there is still much left in the air. What comes next? The conflicts don’t disappear. Injustice still remains in the world. For a moment, the characters revel in the community that they have found; they have their escape, however small it may seem. Their created community offers a space insulated from the external world that pushes and prods them. Perhaps it’s not the entire answer, but it does speak to the possibility and importance of community amidst chaos, and gives hope that life outside of set constructs is possible.
So, in a climate of division, maybe The Peanut Butter Falcon’s greatest gift to us (besides it being a delightful indie diversion from our troubles) is an opportunity for us to reframe our thinking about ourselves. It is a film that invites us to find our own communities when and where we can, a small but important solace in times like these.