Zak has little choice but to hole up wherever he can find shelter, and the first place he finds is a motorboat tied to the dock. The boat belongs to LaBeouf’s Tyler, an unlicensed crab fisherman. Viewed as a thief by his fellow crabbers with licenses, Tyler is a pariah and rapidly running out of funds. In a fit of childish pique, he sets the equipment of rival Duncan (John Hawkes) on fire and gets set to flee, only to find a powerfully-built, nearly-naked young man in his boat. With no options but to take Zak with him, Tyler zooms away from a vengeful Duncan with a plan to start over in Florida. Zak is a charming enough guest that Tyler agrees to drop him at the Saltwater Redneck’s training school, which happens to be on the way, provided neither Duncan nor Eleanor catches up to them first.
The Peanut Butter Falcon thwarts expectations by having both pursuers find our heroes early on. Duncan, who is in no mood to play nice, is evaded, but Eleanor is allowed to tag along, or more accurately, is given no choice after Zak tosses her keys in the ocean. This makeshift family provides the film its weakest chapters, as it relies upon Johnson’s continued lack of appeal and LaBeouf’s failure to sell himself as a compelling romantic object. I’ve enjoyed Johnson’s skills in precisely two works (Ben & Kate, Suspiria), and every other time, she’s stiff and vacant, as she is here. Even if she weren’t, the film doesn’t need a half-baked romance, because its assets are located elsewhere.
Tyler is initially far from a sympathetic figure. While the Peanut Butter Falcon has too much animosity towards Duncan, what with all the accoutrements of a standard villain like sneaking and anger and a score that shifts registers, he’s an aggrieved party. For all the viewer knows, that equipment was keeping his family afloat before Tyler destroyed it. Though the film treats Duncan too harshly, a complicating, character-deepening factor for Tyler is welcome. He’s recently been separated from his older brother (Jon Bernthal), and his relationship with Zak allows him to recapitulate a fraternal dynamic and potentially find redemption in the eyes of a worshipful new friend. His and Zak’s antics, far away from the stultifying nursing home, sustain the film. Both characters take to the instruction or the challenge of trying new and potentially dangerous things.
For a road-trip film, The Peanut Butter Falcon evades disposable fun by also having a coherent resonance beyond its characters. There’s a small-c conservative bent to the film that suggests a Ron Swanson seal of approval. Eleanor represents a fragility in how she approaches Zak, while Tyler wants to perform experiments in how hard Zak can be pushed. Zak’s blossoming out on the water tells the viewer all they need to know in which approach Nilsen and Schwartz approve of, though their background as extreme sports filmmakers could’ve tipped the viewer off. Before the film gets put on the cover of the National Review, however, there’s a neoliberal undercurrent atop the whole thing that wonders why there’s no other place than a fetid nursing home for Zak in the first place, or anyone else for that matter. While Zak survives his brush with a riverboat’s wake, that’s not a coherent policy for those needing supervision. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a strong and interesting debut from two guys who have something to say about the power of testing oneself in nature. We’ll have to see if they have more to say about the poisonous transfer of duties from the public sphere to the private. B