Monday, November 18, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Spoiler-free!

In the movie to most thoroughly warm your heart this year, Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Downs Syndrome, runs away from the rest home where he restlessly stays with all the old people, and bumps into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) a borderline vagabond who's struggling to hold his life together in the rural Outer Banks of North Carolina. They form an unlikely team and go on the lam together, evading vengeful fishermen, and a pretty caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Their destination? Friendship, adventure, and a wrestling school, where Zak plans to meet his hero and fulfill his dream of becoming a wrestler.

Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.

I feel like there's not much more I could say to tempt you if the premise doesn't already have you sold. You look at the characters there, and the situation they're put in, and the rest of the appeal of the film just falls into place. Unexpected bonds, high adventure in the American South, danger and fun laid out side-by-side; it's relaxed and easy-going like all true Southern films should be, but cares deeply about the characters and their journeys. All that it promises with perfect clarity through the set-up, and it delivers on every promise with an impassioned sense of duty. Oh, and did I mention romance? I thought romance was dead in film; not in The Peanut Butter Falcon!

There were two things I was sorely missing in 2019's line-up of new releases, and this movie filled both those holes in one go: Adventure, and romance. On the adventure side, it goes just about as far as it can without getting into a fantasy sub-genre. It has that otherworldly feel of the rural south (and I say that as someone who lives amid it) that it sinks deep into like a muddy river, and that world does the work of suspending your disbelief for you. It's true adventure -- with quests and perils, beautiful scenery and lots of walking. On that note the cinematography was lovely; there's a certain style that perfectly captures the laid-back feel of southern living, like in Jeff Nichols' Mud, and this one has it.

Even without the entertaining plot and neat, thoughtful characters, this movie is lovely to watch.

Then on the romance, it's weird to me how in general movies have lost touch with romance, especially if it's a side plot. It's somehow become annoyingly clinical, like filmmakers are afraid of having two characters gaze at each other and show the audience the moments that make the characters fall in love. I don't mind that filmmakers and trying new approaches to romance (for example this year, I appreciated the focus on friendship over romantic feelings in Five Feet Apart). Often I feel that films are holding back though, and even though this movie's romance is on the side, it wastes no time to get to it, or opportunity to develop it and make it sweet and appealing and everything romance should be.

The writers/directors are new to feature films and you can see the care of this first project in the craftsmanship. The movie remembers to pay off everything it sets up and ends every bit as well as it began, not losing steam or interest as productions with less passion behind them are wont to do. But it also is remarkably sure of itself, for the artists being new to the game. They have a great understanding of what makes films entertaining, pacing, and how to convey real meaning through the craft. The film feels personal. Apparently they made it for their friend Zack, so he could have an opportunity to dig into acting on a large stage, and that focus an intent comes through. That's what makes it appealing to audiences who don't know them or Zack from Adam.

Supporting cast includes Jon Bernthal (with less than 5 mins of screen time as usual haha) Thomas Haden Church and Bruce Dern!

I'm sure they worked hard at it, but they must have also gotten lucky, because the cast line-up is perfect, and not just because they nabbed big name stars like Shia and Dakota. They're big, and good actors, yes, but most importantly they fill out their roles beautifully. I hope Shia LeBeouf is back to stay because he's hit a new stride of acting that suits him; never more naturalistic or subtle or universally appealing as this troubled hero teetering on the edge of destruction. He's dark but not weighty. And Dakota Johnson has a soft strength to her that is impossible to mimic and ideal for this character. The more I see of her the more I love her. Zack is a perfect embodiment of this film's heart, and the three of them have grin-inducing chemistry together.

Some movies have magical timing, and this is one. It could have taken so many paths that would've led to an element not coming through properly, but instead everything fell together like clockwork, and I think the result is the best possible outcome; an immensely satisfying feeling. It certainly had perfect timing for me, swooping in, you might say, like a falcon, to save me from the frustration of films that fall short or miss opportunities to dig into the elements of stories that I want to see. I love that The Peanut Butter Falcon wasn't made for me, but because it was made for someone else, I get to see and love it as if it was.

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