Everyone loves a comeback, especially when it’s a beloved actor finding his way back from big struggles via a TV show or movie that has special meaning on its own terms as well.
Shia LaBoeuf—the child actor turned major movie star of Holes, Disturbia, Eagle Eye and the fourth Indiana Jones movie, who went through an apparent meltdown a couple years back—is experiencing such a moment now with a wonderful film called The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Better yet, Falcon is a bracingly uplifting film that has surprising Christian undertones and elements laced under the surface throughout as it unspools its own tale of redemption for three unlikely people. Best of all, its portrayal of a young man with Down Syndrome who refuses to give up on his dreams of becoming a pro wrestler make this a film that can change hearts and minds for the better in an age when many consider abortion upon learning that an unborn child has challenges.
The magic of Falcon lies in its ability to bring viewers into the lives of people they normally wouldn’t encounter or even consider in real life. It shines a light on a group of people who have been forgotten by society but find deep connections and strength from each other.
Falcon follows the story of Zak, a thirtysomething man with Down Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) who has been forced to live in an assisted living facility as a ward of the state for two-and-half years since the death of his parents. Zak obsessively watches an old VHS wrestling video from the 1980s in which a wrestler called the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) unleashes an array of moves upon opponents, making him Zak’s hero.
Zak wants to escape and learn wrestling from the Salt Water Redneck and engages in a ridiculous yet effective plan to do so. He strips down to his underwear, lathers himself in baby oil and then slides through the bars of his room window into the night.
He hides under a tarp on a small boat owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a shady local fisherman who is always illicitly fishing crabs in an area he’s not licensed to be in. When Tyler burns a large pile of equipment owned by his rivals, Tyler is forced to run for his life, not realizing that Zak is on his boat.
The two become unlikely friends, with the aimless Tyler having nowhere to go and Zak begging him to take him down river to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school. They are joined by a young widowed social worker named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who has been ordered to bring Zak back to the assisted living facility but suddenly feels that perhaps Zak is best served by living his life of adventure.
The unlikely and often unpredictable events that evolve from this journey are a true delight, with Falcon (named after Zak’s chosen pro wrestling moniker) slowly but very surely revealing a Christian undercurrent. Not only does Tyler slowly seek to change his ways for the better, but key songs throughout have gospel or Christ-centered lyrics without being heavy-handed. In addition, a man they encounter on their trip speaks happily about Jesus and faith as he hosts them for a night before baptizing Zak in a river the next day.
Falcon has an incredible sweetness at its core, which should overcome its frequent use of relatively mild foul language. The relationship that develops between Tyler and Eleanor is chaste and touching to behold, and there’s a real sense of triumph as Zak starts to realize his dreams.
One of the film’s producers is Special Olympics chief Tim Shriver, ensuring this as a positive portrayal of a mentally-challenged man who just wants to make friends and live life with some sense of independence and freedom. These universal desires make the movie eminently relatable, and parallels the real-life events that star Shia LaBeouf is undergoing now as he makes a comeback from several years of troubling behavior.
LaBeouf had been a rising star regarded as a possible successor to Tom Hanks as the preeminent and lovable Everyman on the big screen, until he was detoured by apparent mental instability and repeated arrests for drunken behavior. He has another film with great buzz coming out this fall called Honey Boy that he wrote about his difficult childhood with a mentally unstable dad, in which he plays the role of his father pushing his son’s child acting career too far. It seems that he has come through his troubled phase with an artistic interest in redemptive plots.
Overall, this is a truly terrific movie that provides fresh entertainment in a summer overrun by sequels and superheroes. The Peanut Butter Falcon is highly recommended as one of the best movies of the year.
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