By Leslie C. Halpern
While comparisons to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are anticipated and even encouraged by the filmmakers, there’s more to this adventure than a dangerous coming-of-age story set in the Deep South.
The bonus feature concerns the movie’s central character, Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a childlike man of 22 with Down syndrome who’s been abandoned by his family in a state-run home for senior citizens. Although his case worker at the nursing home, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), clearly cares about his well-being and realizes he doesn’t belong in that setting, she’s forced to follow the rules and state laws that govern the young man’s situation.
The Salt Water Redneck
Zak dreams of becoming a fierce wrestler like his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) in part as an escape from his daily life and to fully embody his self-image (explored later in the film). After multiple unsuccessful escape attempts, he makes his getaway one night through his window with the help of his roommate (Bruce Dern), who doesn’t think to throw some clothes out the window for his young friend. Tasked with finding the underwear-clad escapee, Eleanor flashes Zak’s photograph around neighboring towns in an effort to find him before possibly losing her job.
Meanwhile Zak is on the run, partnered with a small-town criminal named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who keeps moving to escape his recent past transgressions. Through unfortunate circumstances, both men are acting out roles assigned to them by others, rather than living happy lives. Despite Tyler’s initial resistance to his nearly naked tagalong, he develops a fondness for Zak—like an older brother caring for his younger sibling. This relationship helps heal both of their emotional wounds over time.
Sweet, But Not Too Sweet
The backwoods, rivers, and small-town settings add richness to the film, as do the performances of LaBeouf (nuanced and convincing) and Gottsagen (fearless and sincere). John Hawkes convincingly portrays a relentless thug, and Thomas Haden Church gives his larger-than-life character more sides than the obvious arrogance we are expecting to discover. Dakota Johnson has a generic role as the caregiver who needs family as much as Zak and Tyler. She smiles a lot, looks sympathetic, and stays calm; it’s a forgettable and thankless role that any attractive young actress could have played. This sweet story has just enough rough edges with vengeful rednecks, a mean-spirited kid, and backyard wrestling matches to keep it from overdosing on goodness.
The Peanut Butter Falcon
A 22-year-old man with Down syndrome escapes from his assisted living facility and goes on a wild river adventure with a small-time criminal.
- Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern
- Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
- Writers: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
- Genre: Adventure
- Run Time: 93 minutes
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.