“Is that your movie?” I texted an old friend, whose name flashed across the long closing film credits of Peanut Butter Falcon. Movies, like success, have many fathers, so don’t make too much of that.
“Yes!” he told me. “What did you think?”
What did I think? “It’s the best buddy movie since ‘The Lion King,’” I told him. “Zack Gottsagen deserves an Oscar!”
Two young men on the lam, learning about love and life and manhood from one another: An old, great plot made deeply, inventively fresh by the casting of the fabulous Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, as the costar with Shia LaBeouf.
It’s a long road to manhood in this crazy world of ours with fewer signposts, and fewer fathers to offer them, it seems. Zak has been abandoned by his family and placed by the state in a nursing home. “They are old,” he tells The Girl, social worker Eleanor (played by Dakota Johnson) after a foiled escape attempt. “I’m young. We’re different.”
Zak may be different but he has a dream: to become a “badass” wrestler by travelling down the Carolina Outer Banks to the school once offered by a TV wrestler “The Saltwater Redneck.”
His elderly nursing home roommate (played by Bruce Dern) sees a young man with a dream and helps him escape.
That old codger is only the first of many good, rough men who help Zak, including Tyler, a young man played (played by Shia LaBeouf) who is spiraling downward. Tyler decides to help Zak, but not in the way Eleanor the social worker would: “Rule number one,” he tells Zack, “I’m in charge.”
The question every boy seeking manhood has to face is what kind of man will I become? The hero or the villain? Along the way a blind, backwoods pastor tells them, “There are sheep in this word and there are wolves in this world. I know that you two boys are just two weary travelers who have lost their way. So, I’m going to clean you up right, with a baptism!” The Saltwater Redneck ultimately gets back in character and revives his wrestling school.
No one wants to disappoint Zack.
Certainly not Shia LaBeouf who was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct (including a racist rant at cops and resisting arrest) while filming: “To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life,” LaBeouf told Esquire. “I don’t believe in God. … But did I see God? Did I hear God? Through Zack, yeah. He met me with love, and at the time, love was truth, and he didn’t pull punches.”
I could share a few reservations, all involving the last 30 seconds of the show, in which the filmmakers clearly punt. But why dwell on a poor final 30 seconds in one of the finest films of the year?
Review call it “poignant,” “heartwarming” and “feel-good” and yes, but it is something more: It is a great film that asks us to consider: What makes us worth loving? The profound commitment of the filmmakers and the actors, to the equal dignity of every human soul is what makes this film shimmer.
This deeply told story will make you cry. It will make you laugh. It will challenge your own sense of who you are and who God wants you to be.
Never before have I seen a movie that earns a 95% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating from both the critics and the movie-goers. That’s an extraordinary achievement for a work of art.
Peanut Butter Falcon is on the cusp of breaking out into profitability. Go see it before you lose the chance to show Hollywood: We need more films like this.
Maggie Gallagher is editor of CatholicArtsToday.com and executive director of BenedictInstitute.org
A version of this piece was originally published in Catholic San Francisco.