Savina Petkova on Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’ ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ (2019)
We often underestimate the material role of analogue predecessors to our digital present. There is a nuanced nostalgia locked in celluloid, videotape, and vinyl that some of us will only know retrospectively but one can easily argue that they provide nothing short of a time capsule. Precisely their materiality, that of a physical copy, enables an immediate connection with the past, even if we don’t know it is past. Imagine a boy, grown up far away from the madding digital lifestyle, that has one VHS tape which he rewinds and rewinds ten times a day, a recording of a wrestling TV show hosted by his idol — an everlasting present of a mythical, life-affirming figure, to which past and future have no claims. The outside world exists as a single tape, and boy, what a tape that is.
Such is the premise of enchanting road tale The Peanut Butter Falcon, a bittersweet first feature by writer-director duo Nilson and Schwartz, that truly shines through the effervescent acting of newcomer Zack Gottsagen. His character, Zak, is a fervent youngster stuck in a nursing home despite being in his early 20s. The reason for that is bureaucratic incompetence as the social system knows no better place to shelter an orphan with Down syndrome. Already labeled as “flight risk”, Zak plots his escape from the caring hands of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) to a comic end, which includes him running out in the North Carolina docks wearing nothing but his underwear. While on his way to meet wrestler icon The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), fate and luck bring Zak together with outlaw Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a temperamental chap with an impeccable moral compass, as the pair makes their way south through the state’s picturesque Outer Banks. The quirky coastline, its barrier islands and sleeves of green vegetation, alternate with sandy stripes while the film follows an unlikely friendship blossoming alongside a geographical exploration of merging coast and ocean. Salt meets sand on the fringes where human strength meets administrative weakness.
A soulful piece of filmmaking, The Peanut Butter Falcon is braided with empathy and universal love in such a heartwarming way that it deserves applause for ironing a few feel-good clichés inside out, revealing an emotionally sensitive approach to representation and character relationships. If the camera focuses on Zak and Tyler’s rocky road to friendship, it does so with humour and close-ups, tailing them in physical spars, verbal banter, and tear-jerking shy hugs. While Zak reveals none of his past but enough to suggest he values the notion of family, Tyler’s memories flare up the screen in painful retrospects to reveal a toil of guilt and self-loathing. However, the duo seem to tap into the truest of essence, a friendship built on mutual growth and affection that can make you invincible.
The ‘hero’ narrative is, as it becomes evident, present in both men’s lives, whether they want to be one and aspire to be sheltered under the wings of one. The beauty of taping a handful of branches together to resemble falcon wings, and the poignancy of renegade poverty which allows only a jar of peanut butter as provisions, make up for Zak’s wrestling alter-ego. The film’s insights of personal psychology come lightly, through well-meant jokes and exhilarating action sequences, to affirm that friendship dynamics can conjure up a whole world. Banalities suddenly sparkle and the audience thrives in the intelligent humour and well-mediated playfulness which keeps the fine balance between freedom of expression and on-the-nose disability disclaimer.
“While you’ve been doin’ paperwork, we’ve been doin’ somethin’ called livin’”, Tyler’s indisputable response is to Eleanor’s welfare concerns, shaking her steady focus on administrative care. It comes as no surprise that the discourse on character strength regarding Zak transfers into the physical realm, when the end of the road brings him to his long-dreamed idol Salt Water Red Neck, now a retired resident of a countryside trailer, his wrestling school long closed. One might shed a tear or two for the impossibility of this dream come true, or over the unjust timelessness of Red Neck’s VHS tape which kept Zak going in the monotonous nursing home life, one that promised a future but instead spoke of a past bygone. But what we learn from the tenderness of The Peanut Butter Falcon is that friends are the family you choose and dreams are what you make of life. Some people are not bound by disappointment since they carry the beacon of hope within, and to them, pessimism and cynicism are imaginary animals. A film with a taste for life and its salty side, it will leave you hungry enough to consider spreading peanut butter over your next fish meal.
The Peanut Butter Falcon screened as as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival and is in cinemas 18th October 2019.