The combination of peanut butter and fresh fish never sounded so appetizing. The men on the mixtape cover art above, star Zack Gottsagen and director Tyler Nilson, ignite The Peanut Butter Falcon, the happiest movie to feature the Carolinas (even though it was filmed in Georgia) this side of the turn of the 21st century.
The essential “buddy-comedy” comes from the gentle hands of first-time directors Nilson and Michael Schwartz, teaming up to make a movie that features a surging lighting rod in Shia LaBeouf and a newcomer who grabs the screen like a fish in Gottsagen. Throw in Thomas Haden Church playing a lovable prick (again), and Dakota Johnson injecting the warmest soft smile she can muster into every scene. Wrap it all up in the trappings of sprawling shots capturing bayous and marshlands. Sneak in a baptism and a raft-building montage into 98-minute runtime. Consider me a fan.
PB Falcon fills your heart at every turn, with LaBeouf turning in a classic (and impressively Southern-esque) “runaway bandit with a haunted past turned good-guy and role model” performance. He even wears a red “Outer Banks” hat that looks just worn enough without looking dirty. Masterful job by whoever threw that hat into the dirt and made it acutely smudged.
In the first 15 minutes, we even get a sappy line spoken by a battered, wrinkled, plain old-looking Bruce Dern, “Friends are the family you choose,” he tells Zak (Gottsagen). Instead of avoiding clichés, Nilson and Schwartz layer them on like a cake that feels too high, feels like it’s going to topple over. Magically, it doesn’t. It stays in form, swaying in the windowed breeze.
The plot isn’t new or inventive, though. It’s just a changing of the wheel, a decorating of sorts. LaBeouf’s lines, delivered with a suppressed anger and controlled joy, are cookie-cutter and Johnson doesn’t have enough screentime, or reasonable dialogue, to go beyond her pigeonhole. The backdrop is beautiful, yet Ozark-ish, and the music, though I love a good folk song, feels too on the nose. The final 15 minutes are implausible and unrealistic, regardless of how happy it made me feel. If I let my head do all the talking, I can find the cracks in the structure, in the dialogue, and in the too-perfect nailing of tropes.
Gottsagen holds it all, and I mean all of it, together with a distinctness and unbridled individuality in what can only be called a monolithic performance. Everything he does on screen has weight. And it should, for the backstory is worth the read. Gottsagen’s own dreams are wrapped into every second of this film and every ounce of this character. He commands the screen because this is his story, and contrary to the what he’s been told in the past, he’s the one steering it.
The obvious, and widely mentioned, comparison is to Huck Finn, yet PB Falcon has a particularity to it. Nilson and Schwartz crafted a singular film featuring “two badasses on the run”, as Zak puts it, and two men forming a bond, albeit one we’ve seen before, in real time. The film is singular because it’s heart is so big, so loud, and ultimately so warm.
The smiles and laughs look real. The handshake doesn’t look awkward or rehearsed. The watermelon helmets look natural. The cast swarm Zak throughout the film, constantly pursuing him. Everyone on screen and in the audience can feel that Zak (and Gottsagen) has a “good guy heart”. The friendships seem to run deeper than the runtime and as current movies go, that’s a rarity at its finest.
As LaBeouf puts it, this is just “like a Mark Twain story or something,” and that sure is a great place to be.