Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s buddy movie The Peanut Butter Falcon is made for the Academy Awards (though I’m not necessarily suggesting it should win those accolades), as it hits a number of the tenets of what we often think of as an “Oscar-bait” movie.
The term “Oscar-bait” frequently brings baggage along with it, particularly the idea that the film was only made with the goal of winning Best Picture. While I can appreciate why folks would find that concept grating, I can also see it from the other side: I’m sure every filmmaker has the dream of winning Best Picture or Best Director at some point in their career, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Granted, there are times where a movie baits the Oscars on subject-matter alone, without being well made. The Paul Haggis film Crash comes to mind. It utilized racism as a tool to bait the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into recognizing the film for its important message. Yes, open discussions about racism are important, but a good movie first, infused with a message second, is so much better. Having said that, I don’t believe that Haggis was sitting at his computer thinking “I’ll just write about racism and get me that Oscar”.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen, brand new to Hollywood with only three acting credits to his name) is a young man with Down Syndrome (it should be noted that the actor himself has Down Syndrome), abandoned by his parents, who lives in a nursing home in North Carolina as decreed by the state. He incessantly watches antiquated VHS tapes of his hero – wrestler Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church) – and dreams of going to Redneck’s wrestling school downstate. Eventually he escapes the home – to the concern of his friend and caregiver Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) – and meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a rough-around-the-edges drifter/criminal with a traumatic history and a heart of gold. The two form an unlikely bond and brotherhood, with Tyler promising Zak that he’ll help the kid get to Saltwater Redneck, and teach him some things along the way.
Absolutely sounds like an Oscar-bait movie, doesn’t it? The Peanut Butter Falcon really does have a lot of the aspects we associate with an Oscar film, but they never feel shoehorned in with an accolade agenda. Instead, they feel organic to the story, which is absolutely necessary.
Gottsagen turns in a wonderful performance that is funny, likeable, and boyishly innocent, with a touch of hilarious sass. Dakota Johnson digs in deep and proves that she’s not just Anastasia Steele, but is in fact a strong actress capable of nuance and subtlety. This is my favourite thing that I’ve seen Shia LaBeouf do (outside of perhaps Sia’s Elastic Heart music video which I think is actually pretty brilliant). I hated Tyler, I loved Tyler, and eventually I empathized with Tyler. Further, Thomas Hayden Church as Saltwater Redneck brings a haunted yet inspired flavour. Rounding out the cast is the always entertaining Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, John Hawkes, and wrestlers Jake Roberts and Mick Foley.
The film absolutely dives into the cheese factor. There are moments where I can understand the cynical feeling like the movie was made with the specific mandate of winning an Oscar. It is also incredibly predictable. There weren’t many surprises for me, and it played out pretty well as I had expected that it would. Having written that, this film is all charm and heart. Gottsagen and LaBeouf share both a father/son, and a brotherly connection, and their chemistry is undeniable.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a beautiful film that evokes pathos, sadness, and joy. While it probably won’t surprise you much, I’d challenge you not to be moved by it. I know that I was.