Just when you think you’ve got Shia LaBeouf figured out, he goes and makes a film like “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a sincere, Southern-fried buddy movie in the tradition of “Forrest Gump,” from two of the producers responsible for “Little Miss Sunshine.” This was the film LaBeouf was shooting when he was arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, which has overshadowed the film until now. Still, there’s a heartfelt quality to the picture, in which LaBeouf stars opposite a young man with Down syndrome, that transcends such misbehavior, resulting in a feel-good niche indie with its priorities in the right place.
While “The Peanut Butter Falcon” doesn’t neatly fit into any particular genre, it clearly takes its inspiration from movies like “Rain Man,” putting newcomer Zack Gottsagen front and center as a pair of unlikely amigos undertake a road/salt-water-rafting trip down the coast to Florida. “Rain Man” may have put autism on the country’s radar, but it gets a bad rap today for casting Dustin Hoffman in a role conceived and interpreted by able-bodied artists. That points to an ongoing debate about representation, in which co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz find themselves on the other side.
The filmmakers met Gottsagen at a camp for disabled artists and crafted the story around him, and it’s a small miracle (considering the challenges such films typically face) that they were able to attract so many name actors to participate in their project. LaBeouf plays Tyler, a dirt-poor tidewater fisherman who’s been on a downward spiral since the death of his brother (Jon Bernthal). After picking a potentially risky fight with Duncan (John Hawkes), a temperamental local crab trapper, Tyler makes his escape from his dead-end Virginia town, knowing full well he’s dead meat if he should ever cross paths with Duncan again.
Meanwhile, a few miles inland, 22-year-old Zak (Gottsagen) stages an elaborate getaway from a Richmond-based retirement home. With no family to care for him, Zak has been stuck in this facility with the old folks, who seem unusually sympathetic to his dreams of escape. After his roommate (Bruce Dern, a feisty addition to the ensemble) helps bend the bars outside their bedroom window, Zak manages to sneak out wearing only his underwear. While in “captivity,” Zak spent his days watching an old VHS tape of a wrestler named the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, doing his best Hulk Hogan), dreaming about enlisting in his “wrestling school,” so it’s not hard for his caring nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) to guess where he might be headed, although she can’t have anticipated that he would meet up with someone irresponsible — or sympathetic — enough to help Zak reach his goal. Someone like Tyler.
This is the make-or-break moment for the plot, which hinges on audiences accepting that Tyler — who looks like a homeless person, with a festering anger behind his feral eyes that seems more likely to kill someone than to adopt a surrogate kid brother with Down syndrome. But there’s something so guileless and genuine about Zak (qualities that stem directly from the actor playing him) that he manages to win over both his newfound friend and the audience in the same coup. And as the filmmakers insert a few key flashbacks to explain what went wrong in Tyler’s past — to turn him from clean-shaven optimist to the scruffy outlaw we see before us — that look softens into something disarmingly compassionate.
Say what you will about LaBeouf’s off-screen troubles, but that same turmoil that seems so disruptive to his personal life gives a role like this a dimension few actors could achieve, resulting in a singular kind of pairing: In Gottsagen, we get a performer who appears to be playing an earnest, unfiltered version of himself, while in LaBeouf, there are layers at play. Oddly enough, both approaches result in a kind of spontaneous unpredictability, making the characters’ choices feel constantly surprising — as when Tyler devises a way for them to cross a narrow river, despite Zak’s inability to swim, resulting in a near-death run-in with a speeding shrimp boat.
As the pair make their way down the North Carolina coast (which offers fresh scenery, nicely interwoven with inland Georgia locations), the filmmakers take time for bonding between episodic adventures. Instead of being condescending or cutesy, as too often happens in films involving characters with disabilities, the writer-director duo have obviously put in the time to understand Zak’s experience. At one point, the character says, “I can’t be a hero because I am a Down syndrome person,” and rather than turning this into a groan-worthy teaching moment, Tyler — who’s hardly your conventional “good guy” — simply shrugs off the suggestion: “What does that have to do with your heart?”
Though it wouldn’t be classified as a comedy per se, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” contains far more good-natured humor than most indies, a vital ingredient to the eccentric encounters the film sets for its characters — one of which involves a revolver-waving blind man who insists on baptizing Zak before giving them the supplies needed to build a vessel that will take them on the rest of their journey. And so the trek continues, allowing Zak and Tyler to add their names alongside Huck Finn or Hushpuppy to the list of fictional American characters who’ve traveled the country by raft. At the end of this particular rainbow waits the Salt Water Redneck and the explanation for the film’s title, paying off an odyssey audiences won’t soon forget.
MORE FROM SXSW: