Zac (Zach Gottsagen) is 22 years old, but lives in a retirement home. This is because he has Down’s Syndrome, and none of his family members is able to provide him with the care that he needs. The one person preventing him from being lost in an indifferent system is the overprotective care worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
Tired of everyone calling him “retard”, Zac stages a breakout. He’s heading South to North Carolina, to meet his idol the Salt Water Redneck. Zac has an old vhs tape of the Redneck’s wrestling bouts, and his ambition is to emulate his hero, wrestling under the name of the Peanut Butter Falcon.
Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is also on the run. Tyler lost it a bit when his brother died, and it doesn’t help that the family crab fishing license has been allocated to someone else, so he has no means of making a living. In an enraged fit, he burns the boat and cages of his nemeses Duncan and Ratboy, but the fire gets out of hand and you don’t mess with someone called Ratboy.
What happens next doesn’t contain many surprizes, particularly if you’ve seen the overexplanatory trailer. Friendships are made, lessons are learned, and Tyler falls in love, despite his initial dickishness in the company of women. However it all is carried off with such charm and panache that you forgive it any lack of narrative ambition.
This is in no small measure down to Gottsagen, in the role that is normally taken by an able-bodied actor with one eye on an Oscar. Seeing as Gottsagen actually has Down’s Syndrome he offers us less of a showy Actor Masterclass but more an authentic depiction of a real person who actually has thoughts and feelings.
And Shia Labeouf raises to the occasion when offered the chance to do some grown-up acting. The chemistry between Tyler and Zac is thoroughly believable, and you get the feeling that while Zac probably does need Eleanor’s professional help, it is Tyler who doesn’t patronise him and allows him to develop as a person.
There is also a sterling supporting cast. Johnson does what she can with a woefully underwritten part, and there are some great cameos, not least by Bruce Dern as the fellow inmate who helps to spring Zac from his Retirement Home prison and Thomas Haden Church as the Salt Water Redneck (or Clint, as he prefers to be called).
And while the plot is mainly predictable, we are confronted with Big Issues. The humane depiction of Zac helps show up the scandal of people like him being lost in a system of unnecessary bureaucracy and deepening cuts. Precisely because he is not Dustin Hoffman playing autistic, you get much more of a sense of Zac’s humanity and the reality of his impossible situation.
After Eleanor deems him to be an escape risk, her boss calls for him to be sent to a home for people with mental disabilities. Its not that he’s uncaring (though he is). There are simply neither the budget nor the resources to do anything else. Zac is ultimately offered redemption by people who are prepared to care and were born rich enough, but you know that many others will be left behind.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a radical film within a pretty conservative format. Yes, it may have been possible to produce something even better, but it offers something with much more artistic quality and integrity than most other films that are on offer at the moment. Go see.