The Peanut But­ter Fal­con echoes Huck­le­berry Finn

A thief and a run­away with Down syn­drome bond as they flee au­thor­ity

The Peterborough Examiner - - Arts & life - TRAVIS DESHONG

Shia LaBeouf — at 33, an em­bat­tled vet­eran of both blockbuste­rs and indies — teams up with new­comer Zack Gottsagen in “The Peanut But­ter Fal­con,” a sweetly comic drama about a young man with Down syn­drome who dreams of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional wrestler.

The story opens on Gottsagen’s char­ac­ter, Zak: a 20-some­thing who has been ware­housed in a re­tire­ment home, where his sole link to the out­side world is a stack of dusty VHS tapes cel­e­brat­ing the ex­ploits of a wrestler known as the Salt Wa­ter Red­neck (Thomas Haden Church), whom Zak watches re­li­giously. When he comes across an ad for his hero’s wrestling camp, a little en­cour­age­ment from Zak’s room­mate (Bruce Dern) — and a bit of soapy lather — fa­cil­i­tate the young man’s es­cape through the bars in his win­dow.

As chance would have it, Zak stows away on a boat stolen by a man who is also on the lam: LaBeouf ’s Tyler, who, af­ter a run of hard times, has been re­duced to steal­ing the catches of other crab fish­er­men. Tyler’s once-boy­ish, bash­ful spirit has long since crusted over, but Zak’s bois­ter­ous, mag­netic per­son­al­ity soft­ens him up. Even­tu­ally, Tyler agrees to ac­com­pany Zak on his quest to lo­cate the wrestling camp. He takes on the role of coach­ing Zak, even help­ing Zak

de­vise his wrestling moniker: The Peanut But­ter Fal­con.

Sound fa­mil­iar? The screen­play (by co-writer-di­rec­tors Tyler Nil­son and Michael Schwartz) es­sen­tially lifts its story beats di­rectly from “The Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn,” trans­pos­ing Mark Twain’s an­te­bel­lum tale into a con­tem­po­rary con­text. Dur­ing the sec­ond act, the pair even travel on a makeshift raft. By the movie’s halfway point, the source ma­te­rial is made even more ex­plicit.

Set in the ru­ral Deep South, the film fea­tures a sound­track of coun­try and in­die rock, pro­vid­ing a sonic back­drop of banjo twang to the vis­tas of bay­ous and wood­lands. Both Tyler and Zak are out­laws, each one flee­ing a dif­fer­ent form of au­thor­ity that is seen as a bru­tally in­dif­fer­ent form of in­car­cer­a­tion. For Tyler, it’s law en­force­ment (and the goons he stole from); for Zak, it’s an im­per­sonal sys­tem of care fa­cil­i­ties re­ferred to in the film — some­what lazily — as the “state.” Although the men’s deep­en­ing bond is meant to be trans­gres­sive, its im­pli­ca­tions pale in com­par­i­son to those of Twain’s par­al­lel char­ac­ters: Huck, a white teenager, and Jim, an older run­away black slave.

But the film’s on-the nose al­lu­sions to Twain ul­ti­mately con­trib­ute to a sense of deriva­tion, un­der­min­ing the orig­i­nal­ity of the ma­te­rial and pre­vent­ing “Fal­con” from grad­u­at­ing from good to great.

Is its story of individual freedom ver­sus so­ci­etal con­straint heart­warm­ing? Yes. “Fal­con” is also about family: Zak, with­out friends or kin, and Tyler, who is haunted by the pre­ma­ture death of his older brother, grad­u­ally come to see that they need each other. They in­vent a se­cret hand­shake, split a jug of brown liquor and wres­tle while wear­ing hel­mets carved from wa­ter­melon rinds. As they travel the river sit­ting shoul­der to shoul­der, a hand­ful of breath­tak­ing shots chart their lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal voy­age to­gether. Gottsagen’s per­for­mance stands out, in a solid cast that in­cludes Dakota John­son as a vol­un­teer from Zak’s care fa­cil­ity who sets out to bring him back, but ends up be­ing caught up by the de­vel­op­ing family af­fair. Gottsagen’s en­ergy proves in­fec­tious, even when the story drags.

As for how the whole thing ends: have you read Twain’s book? If so, you can pretty much guess where this jour­ney down the lazy river will go.

NIGEL BLUCK ROAD­SIDE ATTRACTION­S/AR­MORY FILMS

Zack Gottsagen, left, Dakota John­son and Shia LaBeouf star in "The Peanut But­ter Fal­con."

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