“You like Mark Twain?” asks a character midway through Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s road movie. The person saying this is a man who is, coincidentally, named Tyler, a swamp rat played by Shia LaBeouf so beautifully backwoods-scuzzy that you can practically smell the country funk coming off of him. The woman he’s addressing is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a city-dweller who’s found herself in a middle-of-nowhere service station and in his company. The question is rhetorical. Whether or not she’s a fan of the literary genius, the film they’re both in is most definitely in love with the author’s notions of adventure, the allure of perpetual motion and Americana. There are worse inspirations. There are also many rivers to cross, and rest assured, the travelers of this quirky Southern-fried indie will find themselves literally sailing down a few of them.
LaBeouf’s character isn’t the film’s Huck Finn; that honor belongs to Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man who’s escaped the nursing home in Georgia where he lives. (This technically makes Tyler the movie’s Jim, though given his puckish immaturity, he’s closer in temperament to Tom Sawyer.) Zak is a thirtysomething with Down’s syndrome. He’s also a huge fan of pro wrestling, notably a colorful grappler known as the Saltwater Redneck. On the videotape that Zak forces his elderly roommate (Bruce Dern) to watch ad nauseam, the celebrity keeps pitching the wrestling school he runs in North Carolina. So the superfan releases himself of his own recognizance late one night, with the idea of enrolling in his hero’s academy for bodyslammers, and ends up meeting Tyler. The grungy gent is running from his own problems, hoping to make it to Florida before some angry fishermen catch up to him. But this fugitive figures he can help Zak achieve his dream first.
It’s the scenes of these two misfits traipsing through the less-trod parts of our rural U.S. of A. that give The Peanut Butter Falcon — that’s Zak’s future wrestling handle, by the way — that give the movie its beguiling sense of possibility and its offbeat charm. Gottsagen couldn’t be a more appealing companion to LaBeouf’s cranky, yet surprisingly paternal fuck-up. And though Shia’s considerable screen presence has taken a backseat to his self-destructive, tabloid-friendly tendencies over the last decade, both this film and the upcoming Honey Boy serve as excellent showcases for his second act — a notion that syncs nicely with the film’s never-too-late-to-follow-your-bliss sensibility. It may or may not be a spoiler to say that Johnson’s Eleanor, who was Zak’s caretaker back at the home and is trying to retrieve him, finally catches up to the duo. Soon, it’s a trio rafting their way down the river.
They say it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important, which may be why the movie’s third act feels like a bit of a letdown. You could credibly accuse someone who says that a movie whose last half hour features Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Yelawolf, Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts goes downhill of being a misanthrope. But this is about the point when the feel-good aspects start to feel overwhelming, and when The Peanut Butter Falcon‘s nudging viewers toward cheering really begins to feel like violent prodding. Whether the climax, which veers close to magical realism and even closer to cloying, undoes the good will its built up will defend on the filmgoer. But for a long while, the tour these unlikely dreamers take you on is worth the trip. Samuel Clemens would have approved.