The new film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” has some of the qualities of a good little movie, small in scale but well-acted and designed. It is about an interesting and serious subject — the place in society of those with Down syndrome.
The cast includes Shia LaBeouf, who was a big star when he appeared in the first couple of “Transformer” movies, Hollywood elder Bruce Dern, Dakota Johnson from “Fifty Shades of Gray,” Thomas Haden Church from “Sideways,” John Hawkes and wrestling great Mick “Mankind” Foley (whose death grip was a sock puppet). This is an able cast, particularly when one adds in Zack Gottsagen who has a fine and believable turn as Zak. Zak is a young man misplaced in a “rest home” because he has no family and is thought too intellectually limited to look after himself. His roommate there is a former engineer (Dern) who helps arrange his escape.
The kid wants to go to a school for would-be professional wrestlers run by Salt Water Redneck (Church). Zak’s ancient information suggests the place is just up the coastal Carolina road from the institution where he was watched over by well-off young widow Eleanor (Johnson). Once Zak escapes, she goes out to find him.
Zak hides for a bit in a small fisherman’s boat, owned by haunted ne’er-do-well Tyler (LaBeouf). He suddenly arrives at the boat and takes off in it, chased by a couple of clam trap fisherman whose cages he has stolen and later burned.
So Zak is folded into Tyler’s escape and vice versa. The paths of pursuers and pursued cross several times. But Tyler is threatened physically and is saved only by Zak’s intervention. Eleanor is much less dangerous. Soon she joins the boys on a Huck Finn sort of raft that a blind evangelical has allowed them to build in his junkyard.
The main conflict then is that Eleanor thinks Zak needs more help than does Tyler, who seems to have become genuinely fond of the boy. Unfortunately the ending of the movie seems to suggest she was right all along.
In fact, just about everything in the rest of the movie proves to a little unfortunate. The wrestling school business is impossible to believe — the Atomic Throw, a surreal moment, is one extreme example. The movie has trouble merging its version of what Tyler has done, unintentionally, to his brother with the rest of its business.
And, then, one must wonder about the shorthand treatment of the growth of the romance between Eleanor and Tyler. Sure, she was looking for someone to love. And sure, he needs her help more than Zak does. But there should be a little something in the way of courtship before they ride off into the sunset together, wouldn’t you think?
Oh the other hand, the road or quest story does reach a sort of resolution. Church is fine, and its nice to see Foley. But if the viewer comes to the theater hoping for some formalized understanding of the place of the surprisingly large group of slightly but basically different people to which Zak belongs, the viewer is likely to leave feeling a bit disappointed.