Stories about disabled people are often few and far in between in Hollywood, and those who don't pander or show the world through an able-bodied person's eyes are even rarer. It's this refusal to be any of these things that makes 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' so sweet and so special.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a bright-eyed young man with Down syndrome, who after being repeatedly failed by America's healthcare system and without a family, has been placed in a nursing home. He dreams of becoming a wrestler, obsessing over videos of his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, 'Daddy's Home'). His admiration for the wrestler and the confines of the nursing home drive Zak to escape and attempt to travel to Florida to attend The Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school. Along the way, he meets the rebellious Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, the 'Transformers' series) who helps him on his journey, much to the dismay of his carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson, 'Bad Times at the El Royale'), who is currently looking for him to return him to his home.
'The Peanut Butter Falcon' is a loose retelling of 'Huckleberry Finn', but one of its many remarkable qualities is that it feels fresh in its own right. From the friendship between Zak and Tyler comes a unique spin on how men deal with setbacks in their life, whether it be through their own making for Tyler, our completely out of their control for Zak. It is also commendable that, despite some heavy content, 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' is one of the most lighthearted experiences you will have with a film all year. This is feel-good filmmaking at its finest - the cinematic equivalent of running your hands through tall grass on a perfect, sky-blue spring day (cinematographer Nigel Bluck elevates this sensation by making the outdoor settings feel alive, like a character themselves). It also helps that the cast is on point, with LaBeouf and Johnson turning in some of their finest performances in quite some time. However, this is Gottsagen's film, and by never giving into overboard filmmaking flourishes (the score and editing and pacing are kept basic), the film gives its star the spotlight he deserves. It is truly heartbreaking to watch Tyler and Eleanor argue over how to best take care of Zak, his best interests always in mind even if one outcome might come at the cost of his happiness.
It's the refusal to to pander that makes 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' so sweet and so special.
Perhaps the best element of 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' is just how much it oozes with love and warmth, but never to the point of being saccharine. It would be easy to tell this as Tyler's story or turn it into a tearjerker that pities Zak (the ending might just bring a lump into your throat for other reasons), but 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' is just as ambitious as its Zak, making sure he is the one controlling his own story.
'The Peanut Butter Falcon' has become the rare indie darling to make a splash at the U.S. box office, and Australian audiences would be wise to follow suit. It's a comedy that is as sweet and unique as its main star, and points towards a bright future for disabled inclusivity in film.