As a young actor, Shia LaBeouf’s sweetness mixed with awkwardness was perfect in certain roles. His performance in 2003’s Holes showcased his likability. Roles in big-budget projects like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and the Transformers franchise set him up for film stardom, but his career began to falter as personal drama took over. With this year’s film festival darling, The Peanut Butter Falcon, LaBeouf brings back that likable nature but in a more mature form.
The plot relies on taking two disparate characters and putting them together. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has Down syndrome and is sequestered in a retirement home where he yearns to bring some excitement to his regimented life. When he escapes from the home with the help of his roommate (Bruce Dern showing why he’s always an excellent addition to any film), Zak meets Tyler (LaBeouf), a screw-up who has burned, literally, any chance of finding happiness in the place he’s called home. What happens next might seem predictable, but with the chemistry between Gottsagen and LaBeouf, this story about two people learning life lessons from each other works.
The writers and directors of this low-budget movie, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, take advantage of the settings in the waterways and oceanside of the southern U.S. It looks beguiling and dangerous. Their screenplay, which could feel simple and a little treacly, offers enough spice to make up for the moments that seem too fairytale-ish. With Zak’s dream of being a pro-wrestler and meeting his wrestling hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), and Tyler’s unthinking ability in making enemies, the plot sets up enough drama.
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Dakota Johnson, as the volunteer at Zak’s retirement home who is sent to find him, is allowed to join in on the fun as Zak searches for new experiences. The film’s heartwarming tone gets help from the cast’s performance, especially with LaBeouf and some delightful scenes with Church.
The real charm in The Peanut Butter Falcon is its unassuming nature. Seeing Zak and Tyler bond during their travels makes the movie a sweet one. Gottsagen creates a winning Zak, and LaBeouf, whose career seemed stalled, proves why he is still worth watching.