There are presentational actors and there are representational actors. Guys like Tom Hardy or Johnny Depp, those are representational actors. When they act, they become a completely different person altogether by simply changing the pitch of their voice, appearance, and inventing a totally new character. But presentational actors utilize their own personalities, and their own emotions and experiences as best they can, channeling them into a very real character who we can relate to.
Shia LaBeouf is a presentational actor. One of the best. He doesn’t need to put on a wig or makeup. He just makes us believe him by connecting with his character. And connecting us with him in the process. True, he’s also an actor that brings with him some unfortunate baggage, but when focused on his given profession, there’s no denying what he’s capable of.
LaBeouf is one half of the duo fronting Peanut Butter Falcon. He plays Tyler, a troubled fisherman in Virginia on the run to Florida after getting into some trouble with local fisherman for setting fire to their dock after a quarrel. The other half is Zak, a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who has been living at the retirement home his family left him a couple years back. He’s obsessed with professional wrestling and has nearly worn out his VHS tape of his favorite wrestler, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church), vowing to escape the retirement home and travel to North Carolina to attend Salt Water’s wrestling school.
After several failed attempts, Zak finally succeeds and gets far enough to hide in Tyler’s boat. Once Tyler begins his own getaway, he discovers the surprise stowaway and agrees to help him on his journey. As the two men make their trek, Zak is being tracked down by his caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who truly cares about Zak, but is constantly condescending. Tyler, on the other hand, encourages Zak to live life to the fullest and “give people a story to tell”.
Played by Zack Gottsagen, who actually does have Down syndrome like his character, gives a very memorable performance. He’s naturally funny (and not afraid to ad-lib), and has an explosive chemistry with LaBeouf. And speaking of…LaBeouf plays the rugged runaway brilliantly, adding yet another fine portrayal to his resume. This is gearing up to be a great year for the actor, who was all but outcasted from Hollywood a few years back. But with two critical darlings in 2019 – this and his autobiographical Honey Boy coming up in a few months – he may finally break free from the Hollywood doghouse. This is his first non-R-rated movie in nearly 10 years, oddly enough.
Tyler is a real curmudgeonly dude, but never sees Zak as a person with Down syndrome, or someone with limitations. He acknowledges Zak’s dream of becoming a wrestler despite his disability. He truly believes he can actually achieve his goal, letting him know right away that he’s not BS’ing him by taking a more realistic approach. He tells Zak, “You’ll never dunk a basketball or be an Olympic swimmer,” but is quick to add that being a professional wrestler is a very real possibility, if only because of his enormous physical strength. Also, Zack has the determination to succeed. That much is undeniable.
Tyler admires Zak’s honesty, but the real draw for him is how Zak sees the world with no judgement or prejudice. Tyler is like that too, in a way, but he just doesn’t see the world through that same unfiltered lens. He’s become jaded. We see Tyler’s backstory, but it’s not overloaded with exposition. We see brief flashbacks and that’s all we really need. Sometimes we need to hear that we can’t realistically do just anything simply because we “set our minds to it.” There are things we’re just physically incapable of doing, and that’s OK. Sugar coating this reality only leads to disappointment.
Writing/director team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz knows how to tell a touching story without all the fluff, making a grand debut in their first feature. Straying away from predictable dramatic tear-jerker formulas helps them find new ways to tug on our heart strings without resorting to cheap tricks. They don’t make Tyler give some long, drawn-out speech gushing about how Zak’s changed him, and how he needs Zak just as much as Zak needs him, etc. We just know. As filmmakers they simply rely on the dynamic between their performers to make – and keep – us invested in these characters just by watching them interact and live out their lives.
Peanut Butter Falcon is a movie that makes all the right choices, never content to waste time with pleasantries and phony plot developments. At its core lay a familiar story of hope and aspirations, albeit played out so uniquely that it’s impossible to come away less than inspired and more optimistic for having seen it play out. The onscreen chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen feels so authentic and natural it’s almost a revelation, especially for the troubled actor most associated with Transformers and Even Stevens. This could be the start of a career rebirth – as long as he keeps the antics to a minimum, of course. As touching as it is hilarious, Peanut Butter Falcon is one of the year’s best, and most genuine, films.