Saltwater Rednecks

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a smart, gritty buddy flick with a big loving heart

Leaving — it’s the true American pastime. Only squares stay put. Every free spirit, every renegade comes of age by getting the hell out of Dodge. And there’s always a little criminality involved in such restless and roving reinvention, like when Huck Finn and the slave Jim light out for the territories.

See you later and sayonara, suckers.

The heritage of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn plays heavily in The Peanut Butter Falcon, a lovely new film about two losers who hit the road in search of freedom and a better life. Written and directed by the team of Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, this movie is a pure delight. It wears its big, tender heart on its grubby, gritty sleeve, and it pulses with a compassionate zeal that feels, at times, downright spiritual, while ever attuned to the salt of the earth.

Shia LaBeouf plays Tyler, a North Carolina fisherman who gets popped for selling crabs he stole from someone else’s pots. In retaliation, he torches thousands of dollars of equipment owned by Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), forcing him to flee with nothing but a boat, a backpack and a rifle as the two furious men light out in hot pursuit, trying to recoup their money.

Simultaneously, in a nearby facility, Zak (Zack Gottsgen) — a 22-year-old “Down syndrome person,” as he puts it — escapes with the aid of a fellow resident (Bruce Dern). Turns out Zak is obsessed with a professional wrestler named “The Salt Water Redneck” (Thomas Haden Church), and he wants to travel south to attend the Redneck’s wrestling school and thereby attain fame, fortune and, most importantly, a new identity outside the “retard” he’s been labeled as, directly or indirectly, his whole life.

Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s kind and sweetly condescending caretaker, is ordered by her boss to track him down and bring him back, this time as a “flight risk” headed for an even more repressive facility.

Tyler discovers Zak stowed away on his boat, and after some negotiation, agrees to take him to the wrestling school on his way to Florida. A decent guy who’s hit the skids, Tyler accepts Zak just as he is, and the two form a bond that is deeply real and humane, unsullied by any twee fears of running afoul of Hollywood’s typically romantic and two-dimensional handling of the developmentally disabled. Their relationship is profound, respectful, challenging and, at times, cathartically funny.

Adventure and misadventure ensue, and when Eleanor finally finds them, and then hesitantly joins their journey, a very touching love story develops — not just between Eleanor and Tyler but among the three of them, who form a protective and nurturing family securing itself against a world that wants to cast them aside or out. 

The film strikes a tone so right it’s exhilarating, a relief against falseness. It burrows down into the humanity of its characters and does so in a way that affirms the besieged goodness of everyone involved, despite past mistakes and outward flaws.

With its lonely, striving heart and love for eccentricity, The Peanut Butter Falcon reminded me of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, the 1971 cult classic that, in similar fashion, sneaks up on you and breaks your heart in all the right ways — and for all the right reasons. Like that film, Falcon has a great cast that seems to levitate on the good will of its own story, lighting up the outer darkness with an inner optimism that burns bright.

The story itself is timeless, but the movie couldn’t be more timely and relevant. If our humanity is going to be restored, fostered and buttressed, it’s art like this that will accomplish the deed, by reminding us all what it means to believe in one another. (Broadway Metro)

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