The Family You Choose (Film Review: “The Peanut Butter Falcon”)

An irresistibly heartwarming tale about three mismatched souls who find the family they need on an odyssey that feels straight out of Mark Twain.

SnapShot Plot

It’s a simple story that – in other hands – could have been sentimental at best and treacly at worst. The Peanut Butter Falcon, which came out last summer, should have made a bigger splash than it did, considering some well deserved Oscar buzz, so thankfully you can stream it now on Amazon Prime.

This is the story of Zak, a highly functioning 22-year-old Down Syndrome resident of a nursing home somewhere in the American South, basically dumped there by a family that has long since abandoned him. As the movie opens, we quickly see how ingenious and spirited he is, to the consternation of Eleanor, a kind and well-intentioned therapist who has a special fondness for him. Zak is portrayed in a stunning debut performance by real-life Down Syndrome actor, Zack Gottsagen. But more on him later. Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor with a simple sweetness that belies her character’s steely resolve, in this role departing from her 50 Shades legacy as far as one could imagine.

After a failed breakout attempt, Zak is constrained under house arrest but thanks to his wily roommate (played with mischievous charm by Bruce Dern) he finally springs himself from the home. Alone and basically naked, Zak wanders in search of shelter with only one overwhelming mission: to somehow join the wrestling program run by a former star of the sport whose VHS tapes he’s watched thousands of times: the Saltwater Redneck. He takes shelter under the tarp of a small crab boat owned by a scruffy loner named Tyler who’s running from his past and charging headlong into a pile of trouble. Shia LeBoeuf’s performance as Tyler is the rock in this movie. His performance is anything but performative, and instead a master class in nuance and naturalness. We’re saved from anything resembling political correctness, instead witnessing the rawness, the hilarity, and the very real bond that develops between Tyler and Zak. Together they head out over land and sea, aiming to get Zak to his fabled wrestling school of lore and Tyler to Florida where he’ll make a fresh start. But when Eleanor tracks them down, she must be convinced to hop on their journey. Thus begins the adventure of a lifetime, from which they will never be the same.

Parting Shot

Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon is the kind of feel-good movie that only the hardest of hearts can resist. The movie came about after Nilson and Schwartz attended a camp for disabled and non-disabled people, where they happened to meet Zack Gottsagen. He so impressed them with his magnanimous personality and his unbridled ambition to be a movie star that they decided to create an entire script around him. The role of Tyler was originally slated for American actor, Ben Foster, who ultimately passed on the job but handpicked Shia LeBoeuf to replace him. In interviews promoting this beautiful little picture, LeBoeuf – who hasn’t exactly had the smoothest career trajectory in Hollywood – has stated simply that the experience of doing this picture with Zack Gottsagen has somehow “softened” him and made him less cynical about the world in general. The friendship between Gottsagen, LeBoeuf and Johnson appears quite real, in fact, which may go far to explain why the magic works so well in The Peanut Butter Falcon.

The filmmakers also wisely chose to downplay the romantic attraction between Tyler and Eleanor, to instead focus on the evolving bond of brotherhood between Tyler and Zack. And for a small production (most of the on-location shoots were free with no permits required) it’s quite the hat trick how visually sumptuous this film is. Certain sequences, such as the long shot of Zak following Tyler as he’s walking in the surf, or the training scenes on the railroad tracks, or the languorous journey on the raft down the river, were so rich and visually poetic that you could almost hear Mark Twain’s voice narrating this epic journey between friends.

Because in the end, this is a story about Friendship. About how true friendship is the beginning and the end of all that is good about the Human Heart. That without it, the world can be such a lonely place. And as Bruce Dern’s character says to Zack before he runs away from the nursing home, “Friends are the Family you choose.” Amen.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

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