Review: Going Downriver with ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’, a Lyrical Ode to Friendship

Travel gives me time. Cracking open the borders that line my body and giving way to breath. There is a freeness that comes with moving through a new place, transient. The ideas we each hold of ourselves are paused and given space to breathe, magnifying the impermanence of our lives and so allowing for liberation. The question is, how do we continue this freedom when we find home? Once we settle? Making a place a home is hard work; it takes time, patience, and it is in this stillness that we may each begin to dig into ourselves and keep digging to understand the core of our inner workings. 

Perhaps travel is just a tool to remind us of the constant movement that is ongoing even when we are still. The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) moves within these lines ― it is in constant motion as we follow Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22 year old man with down syndrome, who breaks out of the assisted living home he has been confined to in order to travel to Salt Water Redneck’s Wrestling Camp. On his journey he is accompanied by Tyler (Shia Labeouf), a man dealing with the death of his brother and on the run after committing a petty crime. As they traverse through Louisiana, Zak and Tyler are given time to reflect on family and home, but instead of using this time to create change within their characters, the film hovers above, looking down on the story that could have been. 

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The story itself is a nod to a classic, taking obvious inspiration from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with its parallels of a young man in search of adventure on the shores of the Mississippi river. The adventure itself serves as a tool to dig deeper and deeper into the characters. Zak’s character is rich and his want is simple: to attend the wrestling camp he has been admiring for two years whilst living in a stagnant nursing home, with his carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) in hot pursuit. It was Zak’s storyline that I was initially so excited to deep-dive into; swimming in his perspective as he evolves.  However, Labeouf’s character Tyler ultimately detracts from that potentially impactful story, stripping away some of Zak’s agency. 

The pair’s road trip becomes a means for escapism for Tyler, who ‘trains’ Zak for the wrestling camp through numerous montages that lack vulnerability or any perspective of the larger narrative. Scenes where Tyler teaches Zak to swim or orders him to do push ups on the boat as they float down the river feel detached, moments that could have been opportunities to build on Tyler and Zaks differing perspectives and experiences, but instead pass by so quickly and sporadically that there is no time for intimacy between the pair. This is highlighted when Tyler and Zak camp on the shore of the river and drink swig after swig of moonshine, easing into a warm drunkenness. Zak asks Tyler, “Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” Tyler brushes off the question but Zak loops back; “You are a good guy.” The air hangs heavy as Tyler takes this in. As the viewer I became aware of how important this topic is to Tyler, but before I could sit with this realisation a flashback crowds the screen and pulls the ground from under your feet, leaving you hovering above again ― force-fed exposition and character history that doesn’t bleed into the larger narrative. 

This creates a detached texture to the film that leaks into Tyler and Zak’s relationship. Friendships are messy and heavy and light and when you ease into such a deep, pure space of familiarity with another person, it is both terrifying and comforting because you have found a home in someone that might leave you. It would have been lovely for Zak and Tyler’s relationship to explore these intricacies in a vulnerable way, but in order for that to occur Tyler’s character needed to give space to Zak, to allow Zak to have autonomy and speak for himself. Which leads to a larger idea ― that Tyler manipulates and moulds Zak’s story instead of listening to it. 

This is exemplified in a scene between Johnson, Labeouf, and Gottsagen, once the Eleanor character has found Zak and Tyler and joined them on their journey down the river. As they’re floating downstream Eleanor tells Zak he needs to have a bite of an apple for his blood sugar; Tyler takes offense to this and instructs Zak to hold his breath underwater for as long as he can as part of ‘training’. As Zak’s head is underwater and he can’t hear anything, Tyler snipes at Eleanor that she’s treating Zak like “she can do some shit that [he] can’t do” and they continue to speak about whether the retirement home may not be the best place for Zak.

This scene portrays an obvious disregard for Zak’s character; a conversation revolving entirely around Zak that he is cut out of. To zoom out for a moment, this is an interesting paradox to sit with, because the film was born out of an intent to highlight Zack Gottsagen’s talent. Co-director and co-writer Tyler Nilson met Gottsagen at a camp for actors with disabilities and wrote the script to “create a role that would showcase his abilities”. Instead, these pivotal scenes tended to shy away from delving into Nilson’s intent and filter an uneasiness into the tone of the film. 

Looking further, perhaps this is an indication of the film industry’s uneasiness with portraying characters with disabilities unabashedly. The least effective nooks and crannies of this film all stem from Tyler’s comparatively less substantial narrative arc; his ache to deal with his brother’s death, an encounter with some angry crab farmers after burning their property, and even the relationship that forms between Tyler and Eleanor all feel unnecessary to Zak’s story. This could have been a classic film that authentically tells us of Zak’s adventure, but instead errs on the side of cliche as Tyler’s character takes up more space, tamping the narrative down into familiar, boring beats ― silencing the pulse of the piece. This film feels like a stepping stone to a deeper idea but never sinks far enough into itself to get to the heart of its intention.

The Peanut Butter Falcon has so many beautiful parts. Shia LaBeouf brings grit to the role of Tyler, his erratic, instinctual movement in the space adding an impulsive vitality to many scenes. Consequently, Zack Gottsagen’s performance is more subtle; he moves with ease but without ego, bringing lightness to Shia’s rugged edge and a playfulness to heavy dialogue. His story is the one in which I was most invested, and the one that was given the least time to breathe. This disconnect affects the pacing of the film, which is at times stilted and difficult to follow ― a shame when the subtlety and quiet sincerity of Zak’s scenes can be so comforting. At times the composition of shots felt considered, comforting, such as when Zak and Tyler’s backs are framed by nature,a recurrent motif for their changing relationship. As the characters mesh together, their environment becomes less man made, and their actions more organic. 

A moment that sings is when Tyler and Zak have just made a raft to continue their journey, voice-over humming; “let all the wounds of your past be laid to rest”. Tyler and Zak sit next to one another and when Tyler begins to cry, Zak cradles him, pushing Tyler’s head onto his chest, gentle. After all, the two men just need one another, the way that we all need someone’s shoulder upon which to rest our heads when things are tough. 

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Travel takes time. It disrupts the ebb and flow of the familiar. Spontaneous and frustrating and uneasy ― travel forces us to rely on one another, as we claustrophobically sit with someone else through all the emotions a day brings. It is vulnerable because you can’t filter yourself for long stints; you have to come back to your body, its relentless sensations and patterns, and listen to the discomfort. 

The water that Tyler and Zak float on takes time to move through. The journey is slow, tender – the pace out of their control. As they move from place to place, they are presented with the opportunity to heal, to sit with the traumatic memories of the past and move through them into the present, a path they can always come back to. I think this film is a story I’d like to come back to, to sit and watch and learn from, because for all its faults and omissions it made me ask all the questions I expect great film to inspire; What stories do we cling to? Why do these narratives make us feel a certain way? How do our lived stories and made-up stories intermingle to form experiences within the mind that shape-shift through different parts of our history before seeping into our present? 

Travel gives and takes time; as the past becomes the present, becomes the future, becomes one.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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Sophie Gibson is a storyteller living in Naarm with experience working in Film production and this is the first of a series of reflections through different mediums. Contact via: https://www.sophiemaegibson.com/

Sophie Gibson