The Peanut Butter Falcon

I like all kinds of movies. Hollywood should adore a fan like me because I will turn out for the next tentpole blockbuster in the MCU, or a mainstream drama with major stars, or a gross out comedy or horror film. I also have a fondness for movies like our current subject, offbeat character pieces about subcultures and locations with which I am completely unfamiliar. Two examples from the last few years stick out for illustration purposes. “Moonlight“, the Best Picture winner featuring the history of a gay black drug dealer. That is not something that connects with my experience in any way but it was compelling. “Mud“, which should have been a Best Picture winner explores a Mississippi river community and the tangled relationships between adults and children, I thought it was the best film I saw in the year it came out. So in what ways are these films like “The Peanut Butter Falcon”?

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the movie and lets see if you can connect the dots. We have a Downs Syndrome, young adult, obsessive about TV style wrestling, who lives in the outer banks of North Carolina and gets involved with a disgraced crab fisherman. These are all cultures that I have had little or no contact with and my guess is most of the rest of us lack that connection as well. And this movie manages to bring us into those worlds, create a sense of empathy with those characters and build an emotional story that we will be engaged with for the time we spend with them. This is story telling rather than spectacle and I think that is as worthy of my time and money as any comic book movie would be.

Some might be put off by the presence of Shia LeBeouf in the cast. As a celebrity, he is problematic. Many of his antics are off putting and his persona might be objectionable. I really don’t care much about those sort of things. As an actor I have found him to be fairly consistent in turning in quality performances, both in CGI behemoths and in independent projects. This is probably his best work as an actor that I can remember. His manner of speech is not quite dominated by an accent as it is representative of a lifestyle and culture.  While much of that is the dialogue he has been given, he has to find a way for it to seem natural, and he does that quite well. The physical aspects of his performance are also solid. He is a young man, beaten down by circumstances and haunted by guilt. He is capable of enjoying moments of levity but you can see in most of his scenes that there is a shadow that hangs over him and that it pushes down on him physically as well as emotionally. The best news is, he is not really the star of the picture and all of his work is a reflection that he is a supporting character in the story, even though he has a substantial amount of the screen time.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen is the real star of the film. He is an actor with Downs syndrome who has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders. His openness is the main hook that makes the performance viable. Although he is playing a character with the same condition he has, that character has distinctive behaviors and attitudes that are part of the script. Toward the end of the movie, there is a moment of doubt and fear that has never existed in his character Zac, prior to that instant. The actor makes it real and that is one of the places that makes this a true performance and not just stunt casting. He builds credible relations with the other two major players and a series of other characters as well.

Although the movie focuses on the relationship between the two actors I’ve mentioned so far, there are several others that deserve to be mentioned, not the least of whom is Dakota Johnson. This young woman has the good fortune or curse of having been the lead in the series of Mommy Porn films based on Twilight fan fiction which became so popular a few years ago. The movies are widely derided and it would be easy to dismiss her as a pretty face without commensurate talent. That would be a mistake. She was quite good in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she is touching and sincere in this film as well. She is a conflicted care giver who knows how difficult life for Zac can be, but she can also see the impact that the relationship Zac has with LaBeouf’s character  is a positive one. There are three terrific actors in relatively small parts in the rest of the film, all three are former Academy Award nominees. John Hawkes is cast in his usual redneck image and he is the villain of the piece in spite of his character being largely in the right concerning his dispute with LaBeouf’s Tyler.  Bruce Dern is in the early scenes as a sympathetic resident in Zac’s care facility, and he adds some spunk to the proceedings early on. Finally, Thomas Haden Church may have the best character part since his role in “Sideways”, as a wrestling figure from the past who is an inspiration to Zac.

The film has a great deal of humor based on character to offer us. Tyler does not start out very sympathetic either as a person or towards Zac. The film suggests that good will can manifest good relations and that those are the things we should value above everything else. The lack of good will exhibited by the facility administrators, the crab fishing rivals and a broken down wrestler are the reasons we can’t appreciate their behaviors, even when they are somewhat understandable. Tyler on the other hand, in spite of his criminal acts, turns out to have good will in his heart, the story attempts to show us how someone can recover that by caring for another person. Sometimes these kinds of films are refereed to as “feel-good” movies.  Unfortunately that label might be seen as some as disparaging. In my opinion, this is a movie that makes you feel good because it plays honestly with the characters, not because it manipulates them or us.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.

Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.

This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.

Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara WeavingAbbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities. 

 

Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013,  “The Way, Way Back“.  That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all.