It's hard not to cringe a little when initially hearing the description of "The Peanut Butter Falcon." With its self-consciously twee title and a plot involving an unlikely friendship that develops between an outlaw fisherman and a wrestling-obsessed young man with Down syndrome as they raft through the American South, it seems on paper to be the type of movie that gives American indie filmmaking a bad name. One imagines a mawkish, cynical exercise in pulling the heartstrings of its audiences with little else to offer.
So it's a pleasant surprise to report that the film turns out to be a genuine joy. It's sweet and sincere, and first-time writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz handle a potential minefield with a disarming sensitivity.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen, making his feature acting debut) is a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome. Abandoned by his family and without a guardian to provide him with adequate supervision, he's been sent off to live in a retirement home simply because no one can come up with a better place to put him.
He spends his time obsessively watching old VHS tapes featuring his idol, the professional wrestler known as The Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and dreaming of one day making his way to the training camp for aspiring wrestlers that his hero runs in rural North Carolina.
And so, with a bit of encouragement from his elderly roommate (Bruce Dern, always a delight), Zak busts out of his room and sets off to pursue his dreams.
He ends up hiding out in a boat owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman who's looking to escape some troubles of his own. He agrees to help Zak on his journey, and with a bit of inspiration from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the two set off down the river.
Charged with finding Zak by her superiors, a concerned and sympathetic administrator named Eleanor (a charming Dakota Johnson) sets off in search of the runaway. Meanwhile Tyler is being pursued by a dangerous pair of trappers (John Hawkes and rapper Yelawolf, menacing in their rather underdeveloped roles) out for retribution for the wrongs he's done to them and their business.
"The Peanut Butter Falcon" aims to be a feel-good film, part mismatched buddy comedy and part road trip movie. We follow Zak and Tyler's episodic adventure as the "two bandits on the run" drift wherever the river may take them and encounter various oddball characters along the way.
LaBeouf comes with more than his share of offscreen baggage, but there's no denying the guy can act. He's a wonderful performer, investing his character with a raw vulnerability that bubbles forth as we see Tyler still mourning the death of his older brother (played in flashbacks by Jon Bernthal). He makes us believe the character's arc, the begrudging acceptance of his new role as a reluctant guardian blossoming into something closer to familial affection. Two people in search of a human connection, the bond formed between the pair gives the film its strong foundation.
But none of this would work as well as it does without Gottsagen. Nilson and Mike Schwartz met the performer at a camp for actors with disabilities before deciding to build a screenplay around him, and he's a natural on screen. His presence helps ensure that his characters isn't just a tool to spur a change in others. He's a fully-developed and complicated individual; a young man desperate for a chance to finally experience life. The script doesn't condescend to him, never asking us to pity his character, and allowing him to be funny without becoming the butt of the joke.
Ultimately, the film's plot machinations don't develop in particularly surprising fashion, but its realistic, rough-and-tumble Outer Banks setting blends shockingly well with an almost fable-like tone. Even when its climax threatens to overwhelm us with contrived resolutions, the story's emotions feel honest and earned. A joyful tale told with warmth and care, "The Peanut Butter Falcon" is a heartfelt story about people rediscovering their own self-worth and, in seeing themselves through another's eyes, learning the value they still have to offer the world.