Hollywood has always struggled with portraying people with disabilities in a way that doesn't seem condescending or cliched. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the latest attempt at breaking the mold, but the movie is too convoluted to really make a point.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is an adult with Down syndrome who lives in a North Carolina nursing home, despite his young age, because he was abandoned by his family and the state has nowhere else to put him. He dreams of running away and learning to become a wrestler at a school run by his wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). After a few attempts at running away, Zak is deemed a flight risk by his supervisor Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). When he eventually does escape, in his underwear with no shoes or money, Eleanor is sent on a manhunt to retrieve him.
Meanwhile, Zak wanders around until he meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), an illegal fisherman who's on the run (due to arson). Despite his initial annoyance, Tyler takes Zak under his wing and promises to get him to the wrestling school. They have no car or money, so travel mainly by foot or makeshift boat. They catch fish, get drunk, camp on the beach, and go through a wrestling training montage. When Eleanor finally catches up with the duo, they’ve already bonded over their fugitive status, and she gets pulled into the adventure (and a romance). But she is there to take Zak back to the nursing home, and Tyler thinks Zak can handle himself. Eleanor and Tyler spar and flirt, and everyone learns lessons about friendship, family, and other related topics.
The movie is set in a hot and humid North Carolina and is filled with a gaggle of southern caricatures. Along their journey, the gang encounters a convenience store owner who keeps homemade moonshine behind the counter, a blind Baptist preacher, and men with thick accents who sneer at Eleanor because she has a college degree. The movie tries using the South as a character, but it doesn't fully blend with the rest of the story.
While there are several conflicts in the movie, like Tyler's confrontation with mean and vengeful fishermen and Zak's wrestling journey, the main point of tension is how Zak should be allowed to live. The state wants to send him to a more restrictive living situation, Eleanor wants to take him back to the nursing home, and Tyler just wants to let him be. Zak wants to continue on his adventure, but as Eleanor points out, he needs specific care and medical treatment and Tyler has no idea what he's doing. Still, the movie plays into the tropes of Eleanor as an uptight rule-follower and Tyler as the free-spirit who really knows how to live, man. It's an annoying dichotomy, made even more so when the two spark up a romance after roughly one day.
There are some sweet and touching scenes in the movie; LaBeouf and Gottsagen do have a natural chemistry and brotherly rapport. Gottsagen is probably the strongest and most captivating actor of the three, with LaBeouf doing a perfectly fine job with his underdeveloped character. Dakota Johnson is forgettable, but as with every movie she's in, it's hard to tell if that's because of the material or her acting skill.
The movie comes to an excessively complicated climax at the end, when the wrestling, the fishing drama, the nursing home debacle, and Zak's birthday all combine into an unenjoyable soup. In the end, Zak still feels like a prop to teach Tyler and Eleanor their respective lessons and to bring them together. It's a story that's been done before, and not really worth doing again.
The Peanut Butter Falcon. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Opens Fri., Aug. 23 at Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. cinema.pfpca.org