BFI London Film Festival: The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Peanut Butter Falcon
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Directed by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Zack Gottsagen
Screening at LFF October 3rd, 4th and 11th 2019

by Alex Plant

The debut feature from writer/director team Michael Swartz and Tyler Nilson promises a Mark Twain-esque journey of friendship and self-discovery between a pair of seemingly mismatched runaways as they travel down North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound in order to escape their former lives. What The Peanut Butter Falcon delivers is so much more and, though the spectre of Twain looms over this southern slice of Americana, Swartz and Nilson have crafted a tale of camaraderie that manages to feel both contemporary and timeless.

Zack (Gottsagen) is a nursing home fugitive with dreams of finding his hero, the excellently named Saltwater Red Neck, and joining his wrestling academy. Tyler (LaBeouf) is a hot-headed fisherman who, after engaging in some ill-advised arson, finds himself on the run from some fishing rivals. Of course, their paths intertwine and misadventures ensue, but what starts as an unlikely friendship quickly blossoms into a more fraternal bond. Zack’s concerned carer Eleanor (Johnson) is tasked with finding him but it seems she too, has things worthy of running away from.

Set to a toe-tapping bluegrass soundtrack, the juxtaposition of sun-kissed vistas against industrial relics and tired-looking fishing towns seems to encapsulate the slightly sad sense of faded glory that pervades the American south. It’s a credit Schwartz and Nilson that they never let the film’s more quirky aspects get too carried away. There’s a firmer sense of reality than the thematically similar (and equally excellent) Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but the occasional harshness makes the comedy shine all the more for it.

LaBeouf has rarely been better, with his reckless gruffness belying a haunted vulnerability. It’s due to the maturity of his performance that Jon Bernthal feels like a significant presence throughout the film, despite never even having a line and only being seen in flashback. Johnson heads up a terrific supporting cast which features memorable turns from Bruce Dern, Thomas Hayden-Church and extended cameos from real-life wrestling legends Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

This movie’s greatest revelation however, is Gottsagen. The actor’s debut performance is nothing short of stunning and the chemistry that he and LaBeouf share is so natural that it elevates this above a typical road movie. His relentless positivity and many quotable lines inject a warmth into proceedings that gives The Peanut Butter Falcon a tone all of its own and it is positively life-affirming. A couple of sequences and characters feel a little condensed (such as the whole bayou baptism segment) but ultimately this allows us more time with our two leads, whose relationship forms the heart of this bittersweet adventure.


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