Directed by Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
At first The Peanut Butter Falcon is almost nauseatingly quirky… characters set up in adorable but rushed ways until their heavily telegraphed first ‘meet cute.’ Once the story gets going, however, it settles into a nice dreamy rhythm and whether despite or because of certain plot shortcuts the story harkens back to something resembling magical realism. It’s not so much about the individual steps they take but the joy and freedom inherent to a story that involves building a raft and floating down a river. Whether it be the shadow of Huck Finn or Edward Bloom (Big Fish) whom they follow, the escape made by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is the stuff of myth.
It’s in the details that the movie gets a little lost, but it works well when the two young men, plus Dakota Johnson, are simply enjoying themselves. This is filmed not infrequently at dusk with its characters little more than moving silhouettes and backed by some uplifting music.
Because of that strength the movie does lean into such moments. It’s as if there was a timer set on any scene that involved expository dialogue. The characters say as little as possible so that the story can move onto the next phase and the next location. They drink, play, swim and bond as the music carries us to the next story beat.
In a way that’s quite exciting. We don’t need to waste time on too much exposition, and since film is a visual medium, just show us these characters and we should be able to fill in what we need to know.
Except that this is still a fairly conventionally plotted film, so it at times struggles with the exposition because there is an attempt to convey such backstory and personal drama jammed in there alongside the more pure, simple joys of these two characters bonding in the wild.
It’s also that some characters behave in ways that strain plausibility, as if they only go so far or willingly overlook certain realities just to keep the story moving. For that reason the characters start to wilt under the pressure of the plot, and I think it’s only the impressive performances (as well as genuinely strong filmmaking) that keeps the script afloat.
When Eleanor (Johnson), Zak’s caregiver, tracks them down, she quickly joins the team on their intimate but grand adventure. It’s a good deal of wish fulfillment for all involved, Zak feels free, Tyler atones for past sins (seen through flashbacks), and Eleanor, well I guess she just grants Zak the freedom she always knew he deserved.
These are a bunch of nice performances, beautiful cinematography and confident direction attached to a script like a boat to an anchor. Sometimes the “quirk” factor looms too large, and the characters are little more than a compilation of one or two characteristics. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it sure seems that in these quirky independent films the characters are defined by only one or two characteristics. The more simple their character, the more easy it is to solve their single flaw by the end.
These are stories about growth and optimism, and there is an undeniable charm to the story and its characters, though in some cases the more they speak the more shallow and constructed they appear, at least outside of a few improvised moments that have nothing more in mind than to allow the characters to express themselves. There’s no plot burden or backstory to be commented upon, just the characters existing in that moment.
Up Next: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)