In a cinematic world full of superhero sequels and exhausted adaptions, there are independent movies like “The Peanut Butter Falcon” that restore my faith in movies today. This charming independent was recognized at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and has already accumulated six awards, including three Audience Awards. The audiences have spoken: “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one of the best independent films since “Little Miss Sunshine.”
The story takes place in a type of postmodern, Mark Twain-like world. Zak, portrayed by first-time screen actor Zack Gottsagen, plays an orphaned young man with Down syndrome who wants to become a famous wrestler but is bound to the nursing home he lives at. Shia LaBeouf plays a poor, crab-stealing outlaw named Tyler who lost his brother in a car accident. This brotherly void is without a doubt filled by Zak when the two cross paths after escaping their mundane status quos. Eleanor, played by the lovely Dakota Johnson, is Zak’s nurse and best friend from the retirement home who goes on a journey of her own to find Zak and bring him back home.
The film opens on Zak trying to escape the retirement home for the second time, which makes Eleanor label him a “flight risk.” Zak’s goal is to become “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” his wrestling alter ego. Like a falcon, Zak flies away with Tyler to meet his wrestling idol, Salt Water Redneck, played by Thomas Haden Church, in North Carolina. Zak is able to escape with the help of his retired engineer roommate, Carl, played by Bruce Dern.
“The Peanut Butter Flacon” is a heartwarming take on Mark Twain’s classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” As quoted in the film, Tyler calls himself and Zak “just two bandits on the road.” The film includes adventurous, masculine and religious traits that closely parallel those of “Huckleberry Finn.” Throughout their adventure, Tyler teaches Zak wholesome masculinity. Tyler doesn’t bark at Zak to “man up” or anything like that. He teaches Zak to hold his own with no bias. Ironically depending on each other, Tyler teaches Zak about independence and vice versa. Tyler is a lone wolf until he meets Zak, who teaches him interdependence through the selflessness of their expedition.
Zack Gottsagen was the direct inspiration for this film. Writer and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz are good friends with Gottsagen and wrote the movie about Zack and for Zack. In an interview, Schwartz exclaims: “Zach was the best person for the job. This was not out of charity.” I believe that because the directors knew Zack and were familiar with those with Down syndrome, this film shined. The two beautifully addressed Down syndrome without making Down syndrome the main character. Zak is the main character, not his disorder. There is even a point in the movie where Tyler says he doesn’t care if Zak has Down syndrome. He explains that they need supplies and that is truly all that matters.
The mise en scène of this movie is powerful in all aspects. It almost feels like a documentary with how organic and real everything feels. I really enjoyed the original soundtrack made for the film. It brilliantly encompasses the bluegrass genre and overall feel of cruising down the river of the Deep South. The cinematography is naturally enticing. I can’t take credit away from the cinematographer, but the unaffected landscape of Savannah, Georgia, where they shot the film, is breathtaking. The script is as raw as the actors who portrayed it. Because the directors knew Zack, there was a friendly feel to the words of the characters. Nothing felt forced or out of place.
The performances from the actors were exceptionally real. LaBeouf’s performance is refreshing and impressive compared to his past roles. LaBeouf and Gottsagen have amazing chemistry on camera. Lastly, there is an unforced and delightful comedy that is very hard to come by in movies that “The Peanut Butter Falcon” perfects. A naked man running down the street to freedom with no plan covered in lotion is freaking hilarious. It is the spontaneity of LaBeouf and Gottsagen’s actions that make them feel human. Trial and error are funny.
It is a shame that this film didn’t get more marketing, but most independent films don’t get the exposure they deserve. Hollywood and big studio films are fortunate to have the budget they do. I’ve seen many highly marketed films that come nowhere near the authenticity many independent films have. Independent films are so incredibly important because they are the purest forms of cinema. Independent films are gems.
I know when I’ve seen a good, underground indie, it feels like I have a secret and suggesting this to others by word of mouth feels more meaningful. The audience connects themselves to the main character. A character that feels more relatable will capture the audience’s interest quicker. Sure, I can watch “Captain Marvel” and for a short period of time feel like a superhero, but I relate much more to Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Independent films are made by the underdogs, for the underdogs. The ones who don’t have millions of dollars or red-carpet actors, although nowadays, bigger names are participating in independent cinema, like LaBeouf and Johnson. Independent films give actors like Gottsagen a chance they might have never gotten before. “Peanut Butter Falcon” and Zack Gottsagen are the reasons to support independent film.
“Peanut Butter Falcon” is proof that anyone can live out their dream if they care. It might not go exactly the way one imagines, but Zak shows it’s better to have tried than to have never tried at all. He got to live out his dream alongside friends who loved him for him. This film hits all the marks a great film entails: a raw story, phenomenal performances by the actors, a brilliant original soundtrack and gorgeous cinematography to tie it all together. The entertaining adventure that is “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one meant to be shared and treasured. Support this film by seeing it before it leaves the theaters.