SXSW Review: The Unlikely Kindred Friendship in ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’

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Time: 10:30pm on March 15th, 2019. On the outside of the Alamo Lamar in Austin, Texas a line of festival goers await to see a little film called The Peanut Butter Falcon. At this point in the festival, it already made its initial three screening run, but managed to pick up a fourth screening thanks to all the buzz it was generating. A random dude goes up and down the line handing out free coffee to attendees in a totally bizarre act for a late night film. He thanked everyone for coming out, greeted everyone, and appreciated everyone’s attendance.

That random dude was the director, Tyler Nilson, and his sincere appreciation for the late night crowd matched that of the work he put into his film, because The Peanut Butter Falcon ended up being one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire festival. 

The film follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a boy with downs syndrome living in a nursing home with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, but who is kept in check by Eleanor (Dakotah Johnson) and the staff of the facility. One day he escapes their custody and stumbles upon another runaway named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisher fleeing to Florida after destroying another man’s gear. Together they go on a journey to fulfill Zak’s dream of attending The Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling academy while pursuing parties chase them. 

A great deal of the film’s pleasantries come from Tyler’s and Zak’s relationship. The two meet under unlikely circumstances and come together under a mutual understanding of their on-the-run status. Together, they represent a carefree duo that finds joy in drinking on the beach, firing guns, and developing Zak’s wrestling persona, The Peanut Butter Falcon. With parts humor, sympathy, and rebellion, the two are an indomitable pair that generate much of the film’s long lasting appeal, and which only grows stronger as the film progresses and as external forces try to tear them apart. Though their pairing unlikely, you can’t help but leave the theater feeling warmed by the kindred friendship the two form on their journey.

Shia LaBeouf’s performance as Tyler is nothing short of authentic and kind. Who initially comes off as corse and abrasive ends up being someone who befriends an unlikely stranger and treats him as a normal human being. Tyler’s character is unbiased in how he sees Zak, and doesn’t let his disability come to define him. His determination and commitment to making Zak’s dreams come true is wholesome, and feeds into the film’s themes about how we treat people with disabilities.

Zak’s down syndrome is often brought up as a rationale to restrict him, but what PBF rightfully asserts is that it shouldn’t matter. He is not seen in the same light as others because of what others project onto him, and not what Zak knows true about himself. Elenor’s character is perhaps representative of the audience and the realization that comes from the film’s message. To see someone with a disability is to automatically assume inability, but what comes to fruition is that their hopes and dreams shouldn’t be shelved because of labels.

It’s to co-directors Tyler Nilson’s and Mike Schwartz’s credit that something as thematically delicate and socially pertinent didn’t miss the mark. The film was made out of a promise to Zack Gottsagen after knowing him for years and while the directors were still living in tents, so they come from a place of understanding. They treat this odyssey road movie as a vehicle for opening new perspectives on those with disabilities, and they do so with a warm, southern authenticity. With no ridicule or malice, PBF constantly embraces the idea of what it means to treat others as equals in spite of differences.

If there is a point to critique, it is the ending. To put simply it drops like a brick. When the climax finally hits, you are taken aback by the fact that the film ends within three minutes of its peak. It could have benefited from some more resolution surrounding both runaways, and while the closing shot is definitive in where the characters go, the transition between climax and ending stumbles on execution.

In the deluge of festival films to watch, there are usually more disappointments than there are standouts, but when a festival film makes such an impact as this one did, it makes it all worth it. To round out my opening anecdote, the film was so positively received that it went on to snag a fifth screening after winning the Narrative Spotlight award — which it too ended up being sold out. During a post screening Q&A, the directors emphatically told the audience that they needed positive word of mouth so they can get a distributor. After seeing the film, I would be incredibly remorseful for wider audiences if it didn’t eventually get a deal because the legend of The Peanut Butter Falcon shouldn’t be limited to the festival circuit.