Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Supplied

Small movie that became huge hit

The Peanut Butter Falcon could've easily skated on its folksy charm and Huck Finn-esque adventure inspiration, but this movie aims for more than that.

A surprising hit in the US last year, The Peanut Falcon won over audiences and became the highest grossing independent film of the year, and it's easy to see why.

At the core of its appeal is a roaring performance from Zack Gottsagen, a young actor with Down syndrome. His friends, filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, wrote the role specifically for Gottsagen, and the affection they have for their mate is evident in the character they wrote.

Gottsagen plays Zak, a 22-year-old young man who's stuck in a retirement home because, without any family, the state has nowhere else to put him, or so they think.

Zack Gottsagen received a special honour at the Palm Springs Film Festival for his performance
Zack Gottsagen received a special honour at the Palm Springs Film Festival for his performance


Zak has aspirations of professional wrestling, having almost worn out an old VHS tape of his wrestling hero, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). One night, he breaks out of the facility with nothing more than the tighty whities on his oil-slicked body.

The sight of Zak running down the road in his getaway get-up (the oil was to help him grease through the pulled-aside window bars) would've been played for mocking laughs in a broad comedy from Todd Phillips or Adam Sandler.

But Nilson and Schwartz frames this visual moment not as one of derision or pity, but as one of triumph.

Zak soon meets up with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman who's resorted to theft after the death of his brother (Jon Bernthal).

After an initial hiccup, Tyler agrees to accompany Zak to the home of Salt Water Redneck further south, while he plans to go down to Florida.

Both Tyler and Zak have pursuers on their tails as they walk, sail and drift their way down the Outer Banks of North Carolina - Tyler miffed a couple of violent fisherman, while Zak's social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) has been tasked to bring him back.

Shia LaBeouf plays a drifter fisherman.
Shia LaBeouf plays a drifter fisherman.


Zak is a fully realised character in a screen industry so risk averse to giving opportunities to actors with disabilities, though that is slowly, slowly changing. And Tyler is a character that always treats Zak as an adult and not an infantilised person to be mollycoddled.

There's a strength in this film in how straightforward it is in its ambitions - while the commentary around the film may point to its achievements, the story itself doesn't clobber or shout "look at us!"

Gottsagen has a commanding screen presence and imbues the character with dignity and nuance, while LaBeouf and Johnson give skilful supporting performances - and there is great skill in letting your co-star shine.

Nilson and Schwartz vividly evoke the washed-out sunniness of the southeast coast of the US and subtly touch on the challenges of working-class fishing communities.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a sweet, tender and joyful portrayal of an unlikely friendship, and it won't fail to charm.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Peanut Butter Falcon is in cinemas now

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