There’s a regrettable tendency in Hollywood to employ actors with Down syndrome either as harbingers of weirdness (see Lars von Trier’s miniseries The Kingdom) or as irrepressible life forces that are mostly around to remind uptight “normal” characters what’s really important. A smidgen of the latter can be found in The Peanut Butter Falcon, which pairs Shia LaBeouf with newcomer Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome. This quirky indie buddy movie’s basic premise strongly recalls the largely forgotten Belgian dramedy The Eighth Day, for which Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne (who likewise has Down syndrome) jointly won Cannes’ Best Actor prize back in 1996. But Gottsagen is too lively to be completely pinned down by feel-good clichés, and his unpredictability brings out the best in LaBeouf. As in most buddy pictures, so long as the chemistry works, all else is forgivable.
There’s a fair amount to forgive, plotwise. As in The Eighth Day, we begin with an escape from an institution: Zak (Gottsagen), who’s been stuck for two years in a nursing home, enlists the help of his roommate (Bruce Dern) to bend the iron bars on their window, then greases himself up and manages to squeeze through, wearing only his tighty whities. Rather than meeting Auteuil’s uptight businessman, however, Zak sneaks onto a small boat owned by Tyler (LaBoeuf), who needs to engineer a speedy escape of his own in order to avoid being beaten or possibly even killed by an angry crab-fishing rival (John Hawkes). After some obligatory efforts to get rid of his stowaway, Tyler agrees to escort Zak from Virginia to North Carolina, where Zak hopes to attend a wrestling school he’s seen on an ancient VHS tape at the nursing home. (He eventually adopts a persona that gives the film its oddball title.) Meanwhile, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), an empathetic volunteer at the facility, sets out to find Zak, ultimately getting roped into accompanying both men on the tail end of their incredible journey.
Sounds pretty hackneyed, admittedly, and writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz lean heavily on cute montages and stock reversals. (When the gang walks away dejected from the dilapidated trailer home of Zak’s now-long-retired favorite wrestler, who’s played by Thomas Haden Church, you just know the guy’s gonna turn up later in full costume.) But the easy rapport between Gottsagen and LaBoeuf is so consistently winning that it’s hard to stay annoyed at the movie for very long. Their dynamic recalls the one between Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man, minus the stuntlike nature of Hoffman’s performance; Gottsagen does rich, multifaceted work as Zak, putting a sarcastic spin on many of his lines and conveying volumes at times without speaking at all. Nilson and Schwartz built the entire movie around Gottsagen, having discovered him at a camp for aspiring actors with disabilities; he’s been studying his craft since age 3, and it shows. Sure, Scarlett Johansson could probably have played the role (as well as any of the trees in the background). But if you seek a good example of why diversity in casting and conception makes for a richer cinema landscape, look no further.