London Film Festival Review – The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

It’s the done thing to tweet a reaction after seeing a film and this reviewer is no exception. The Peanut Butter Falcon prompted the observation that, although the film had finished some time ago, my smile was still going strong. The makers of the film responded, saying that it was a smile for the face and the soul. They weren’t wrong. It’s very much for the soul: a smiling face can disguise what’s going on underneath, but there’s no denying that deep, inner smile. And that’s what you get from this little gem.

So many movies attract the “feelgood film of the year” tag, but this is the real deal, one that raises your spirits, restores your faith in humanity and makes you generally feel good about the world. But it also makes you think and examine your own feelings. This joyous experience finds Zak (Zack Gottsagen) living in a retirement home, the only place the local authorities can house a solitary young man with Downs Syndrome. But he has a dream. To become a wrestler. He drives room mate Carl (Bruce Dern) round the bend by repeatedly playing a video of a wrestling school run by a grappler known as The Salt Water Redneck and is determined to get the man himself to train him. After escaping, he teams up with thief on the run Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and they’re joined by Zak’s carer from the home, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who has been trying to find him. Together, they make the long journey to make that wrestling dream come true.

The film makes no attempt to disguise its Huck Finn credentials – the picaresque narrative, the gentle humour and the varied characters Zack and his companions meet along the way, from the blind old timer who just loves to baptise people to the shop keeper who makes his own moonshine and gives it away. Some of them may be downright eccentric, but they’re all beautifully cast and none of them strikes a false note. It’s a film that could all too easily slip into sentiment, yet it never gets close, and its safety net is Zack Gottsagen, who has Downs Syndrome himself. He creates a character with such spirit, resilience and determination, coupled with a disarmingly honest and straightforward view of the world, that he captures your heart within seconds and never lets go.

He’s also the reason for examining your own feelings. His vulnerability arouses your protective instinct, an almost reflex desire to hold on to him so that nothing bad can ever happen. Yet that’s exactly what he doesn’t want. Tyler admits right from the start to not caring that Zak has Downs and that’s exactly how he behaves, but what starts out as a negative turns into a positive, as he comes to treat the young man like anybody else. Which is exactly what we should do as well. That protective instinct can be overpowering, patronising and underestimates him. After all, during the course of the film he overcomes his fear of water, learns to swim and can even hold his head under water longer that most of us ever could. And catch a fish while doing it!

The Peanut Butter Falcon will make you laugh a lot, both outside and in. It will warm your heart and, in the short space of 90 minutes, arouse a deep caring about Zak, as well as Tyler and Eleanor, his chosen family, so that any threat against them is one against you. Accept no substitutes. This really is the feelgood film of the year. By a country mile.

★★★★1/2

Drama, Comedy | Cert: 12A | London Film Festival 3, 4 and 11 October 2019 | UK, 18 October 2019 | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz | Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern.

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