Shia Labeouf and the Sundance Kid

This buddy comedy starring Shia Labeouf and actor with Down Syndrome Zack Gottsagen is heavy on the Sundance clichés, but it works.

If the Sundance movie has become codified to the point of instantly conjuring up negative images, then The Peanut Butter Falcon’s broad strokes do absolutely nothing to dispel those images. Sundance movies — or, certainly, the kinds of movies that won prizes at Sundance and subsequently commanded record-breaking acquisition prices 10 or 12 years ago — are uniformly coded as dramedies about quirky, usually white people who march to the beat of their own drum. For a while there, they took a “humorous but deep” approach to tough real-life issues, be they mental health, poverty, racism, sexual assault or whatever else you may imagine. A lot of these movies have aged poorly now that television has more or less stepped in to cover that territory –  there’s seriously less need for a Happythankyoumoreplease or Winter’s Bone now that TV shows can essentially cover that same ground (often with casts of the same ilk).

All this to say that if I tell you that The Peanut Butter Falcon is a seriocomic picaresque journey through the American South that brings together a wrestling-obsessed teenager with Down’s Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) and a troubled good ol’ boy (Shia LaBeouf) on the run from a psychotic fisherman (John Hawkes) whose cages he set on fire in a fit of rage, I expect you to go running the other way. The Peanut Butter Falcon weaves way too many familiar elements together for comfort — the mismatched buddy comedy, Rain Man, the redneck noir à la Jeff Nichols, Huckleberry Finn, Midnight Cowboy, any number of heart-on-your-sleeve films about a person with a disability — and yet, it generally manages to overcome all the hurdles thanks to a genial sense of humour and genuine affection for its characters.

Zack (Gottsagen) is a young adult with Down’s Syndrome who has been abandoned by his family and forced to live in a government home almost exclusively peopled with seniors. Zack is obsessed with two things: escaping the home and taking classes with the Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), a professional wrestler who sells classes on an old videotape that Zack watches constantly. Zack manages to escape one night with the help of a fellow resident (Bruce Dern) and runs off into the night wearing only his underwear. He hides out in a boat that ends up “belonging” to Tyler (Labeouf), a homeless fisherman who has been run out of his last job for trying to sell crab without a permit and, when that falls through, setting a rival’s equipment on fire. With that rival (Hawkes, alongside rapper Yelawolf) and Zack’s distraught caretaker (Dakota Johnson) on their trail, Tyler and Zack sail the outer coast of North Carolina in the hopes of making it to the Salt-Water Redneck’s school before anyone catches up with them.

The strength of The Peanut Butter Falcon relies not so much on its story or even in the richness of the characters (Tyler has a couple of wordless flashbacks to his life with his brother — played by Jon Bernthal — that more or less comprise the entirety of his backstory; we, likewise, know very little about Zack beyond the fact that his family didn’t want him) but rather in the winsome and natural rapport between the two leads. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have, by their own admission, designed the film as a vehicle for Gottsagen, who they met years prior to making the film at an acting camp. It’s a small nuance, but a vital one: by building the film around who Gottsagen is rather than casting him as a character written beforehand, it gives him agency and shifts the focus away from the film purely being about someone “different.”

Labeouf and Gottsagen have an easy, free-flowing rapport that makes their scenes together a delight, from Tyler’s determination to teach Zack how to shoot (the subsequent montage features one of the best gun-recoil sight gags I’ve ever seen) to the drunken campfire that leads to the creation of Zack’s wrestling alter-ego, the titular Peanut Butter Falcon. Zack is rarely, if ever, the butt of the joke. More importantly, he’s rarely the vessel for pat lessons in acceptance and other moralistic slips of the tongue. He’s treated like a real person by the film, avoiding the traditional cliché of the differently abled being oracles of self-actualization for characters on the outside.

The thin sketching and somewhat predictable plotting of The Peanut Butter Falcon are features, not bugs; they’re things that are in there because they bring the relationship into sharper focus. Truth be told, there’s a ceiling on these things, no matter how good their intentions are and how well they pull them off. The skeleton of these bygone Sundance turds still peeks through at times, but The Peanut Butter Falcon is pretty much the best way to pull off a dodgy idea. ■

The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 31. Watch the trailer: