5 out of 5 stars
For anybody in need of a pick-me-up, Zack Gottsagen is here for you. In “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” Gottsagen makes his debut as an actor and absolutely nails it. Gottsagen’s character, a 22-year old with Down’s Syndrome named Zak, buddies up with Tyler, played by Shia LaBeouf, to create a storyline of adventure, of fugitives on the run, of boys with a dream that will have you grinning as you walk out of the theater.
The movie follows the young men as they hike south, each with their own goal in mind. Zak, who ends up on the road with Tyler after escaping a nursing home, has dreams of becoming a wrestler, inspired by videos he spent his time watching in the nursing home before his escape. Tyler, on the other hand, is on the run from some minor trouble he’s gotten himself into, involving fire and theft. The two team up and head south – and, as per usual, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination.
As a young man with Down’s Syndrome, Zak has grown up in an unfortunate situation. His family abandoned him, leaving him in a nursing home with the elderly, and he is more than capable of living a much more fulfilling life. Yet the film doesn’t focus on his past or his hardships – it focuses on his desire to achieve his dream of becoming a wrestler. From his escape from the nursing home within minutes of the movie’s start to the credits at the end, his determination is palpable and inspiring. Zak knows he’s different – he addresses it throughout the movie – but he doesn’t allow it to hold him back, and his attitude will undoubtedly brighten your day.
The rapport between Zak and Tyler adds multitudes to the film as well. Though there’s a lot going on throughout the movie, from Tyler escaping a troubled past to a romantic subplot on the side, you’ll walk away remembering their friendship above most other aspects of the film. Tyler doesn’t even blink at any of Zak’s setbacks; he doesn’t react when Zak calls attention here and there to the fact that he has Down’s Syndrome, that people might not expect much of him because of it. Tyler leaves no room for this as an excuse or an explanation and expects Zak to be able to keep up with him on their journey as he would anybody else.
Not only does Tyler push Zak, but also vice versa. Zak brings out a softer side of Tyler, forces him to become responsible for someone other than himself, gives him someone to care about. With a loss in his family’s history, Tyler’s character begins the movie slightly hardened. He looks out for himself, but it takes Zak’s presence to teach him how to care for someone else, to show him that he’s not alone. The relationship is mutually beneficial in so many ways, and their interactions are incredibly heartwarming throughout the movie.
The film has other subplots as well. The boys are pursued not only by enemies of Tyler’s who are established in the beginning of the movie, but also by a caretaker of Zak’s back at the nursing home. But the caretaker, Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson, adds another layer to the plot as she becomes a love interest for Tyler. From the beginning, Eleanor gives a glimpse into the good side of the nursing home, into the employees there on the ground who genuinely care about the residents there, a stark contrast to the administration of the home, which is shown early in the movie as well. Though relatively predictable, the relationship that develops between Eleanor and Tyler is far from cheesy, and the three of them leave you a bit jealous, despite everything else going on, that you aren’t on this journey with them.
Overall, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a feel-good film, heartwarming, hilarious and inspiring. Both the film and Zack Gottsagen’s debut performance as an actor deserve a round of applause.