Two bandits on the run.
Neither Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) nor Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is where he wants to be—each haunted by memories of their loss. The former suffers from demons of his own making after his brother Mark’s (Jon Bernthal) death while the latter contends with his family abandoning him into the guardianship of a state ill-equipped to care. They’re trapped in ways that only render an escape possible through criminal means. Tyler’s arson gives him an excuse to run by ensuring Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy’s (Yelawolf) desperate fishermen set chase with an unyielding desire for retribution and Zak finally makes good on the reason he’s harbored the entire two-and-a-half years his Down syndrome self has been forced to reside in a retirement home because of the dearth of better alternatives.
This is how writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz put the two together at the start of their film The Peanut Butter Falcon. Zak has just flown the coop (with encouragement from Bruce Dern as his roommate Carl) during the night in nothing but his underwear before seeking shelter in a small fishing boat at the docks. Tyler, frustrated by where his life has gone since Mark’s passing, has just set Duncan’s livelihood on fire before hopping in that same boat for a quick getaway through the swampy Carolina marsh. Like most unwitting odd couple pairings on the road, they initially go their separate ways. Tyler knows Zak will slow him down, but it’s not long until he also realizes the boy also needs his help to survive.
So off they go down the coast with Tyler’s journey hopefully ending in Florida after a detour so Zak can attend his idol’s (Thomas Haden Church‘s Salt Water Redneck) wrestling school. It’s a promise that won’t be easily broken, one that sparks a friendship and brotherhood neither could have expected. With the assistance of an eclectic bunch of folks along the way, these two discover what they’ve been missing in each other. Tyler finds the kinship for whose absence has let him go astray while Zak enjoys what could be the first human being to ever treat him like a normal twenty-two year old. You’d be forgiven for forgetting their pursuers completely once this bond becomes as thick as blood. But nobody outruns his past forever.
And don’t think because Duncan threatens bashing Tyler’s head in with a tire iron that Zak has it much better. While Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) may not be vowing to inflict physical violence upon him, her mission is to clip his wings and bring him back to the nursing home. For him this is akin to death since it had already stifled his ability to live life to the fullest. Now that Zak actually left to validate a label like “flight risk,” however, things could get even worse if his former accommodations decide to ship him off somewhere else. Their only chance to keep breathing fresh air without an albatross-sized weight on their shoulders via their respective forms of socio-economic captivity is to continue south. Hope provides them purpose.
Nilson and Schwartz aren’t afraid to let it guide them in authentic ways either. There’s a lot of subtlety where backstory is concerned (see Tyler’s brush with PTSD when Zak’s life is risked because of a decision he made) and plenty of heart for the present. A lot of this is due to the genuine rapport between LaBeouf and Gottsagen. They push each other’s buttons with smiles because they understand what too many couldn’t. Neither wants to be coddled or pushed into a corner they didn’t walks towards themselves so they exist as support alone. Zak gets Tyler to open up emotionally despite never talking about Mark by name. And Tyler gets Zak to enter the proverbial (and literal) ring to show the world his strength.
Eleanor therefore enters the fray as an outsider who cares enough to acknowledge that even she—Zak’s biggest champion—might have been wrong. She bears witness to the changes in both men whether she only knows Tyler for five minutes before joining their adventure or not. The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t take long to make a difference. If Eleanor trusts that Tyler’s motivations for helping Zak are pure, his entire outlook can evolve. The same goes for Zak believing in this stranger like he believes in him. Sometimes Tyler is the big brother and sometimes the little in order to simultaneously feel safe again and give that security to another like Mark did for him. The Peanut Butter Falcon proves beyond heartwarming as a result.
But it’s not all about the moments that choke you up with nothing more than a hand gesture or silent, tearful glance. There’s also an infectious strain of humor running rampant throughout that augments the heart and fear (Duncan and Ratboy’s wrath isn’t fleeting) within. Most arrives from Tyler and Zak’s interactions and their ability to be sweetly endearing and sharply observational, but the supporting players help too whether a convenience store clerk’s anxiety serving a man with a shotgun, Jasper (Wayne Dehart) the blind missionary, or Salt Water Redneck and his wrestling buddies (played by Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley). All we need to know that things are landing is Zack Gottsagen’s ear-to-ear grin in response. If he’s having fun, so are we.
His inclusion at all is a godsend because it’s for a role that doesn’t ask him to be a token pawn to another’s narrative path. There’s purpose to the Zak character having Down syndrome. One of the film’s main goals is to normalize the genetic condition and show how easy it is to treat him like a human being with ambitions that demand he be set free. Whenever Nilson and Schwartz do intentionally make him the butt of a joke, they know it’s so we won’t laugh. Those instances instead portray the reasons why we should be advocates for people like Zak—to stand up for them and educate those who don’t. This is a good kid who deserves better. Give him your opportunities and watch him soar.
 Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON Photo Credit: Seth Johnson Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films
 Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson and Shia LaBeouf in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON Photo Credit: Seth Johnson Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films
 John Hawkes in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON Photo Credit: Nigel Bluck Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Armory Films