Stranger things have happened, but even so it seemed altogether unlikely that the final months of 2019 should witness a Shia LaBeouf renaissance. December saw the release of Honey Boy, a collaboration with Alma Har'el in which LaBeouf played his own father, to considerable acclaim; by way of an initial olive branch, there was The Peanut Butter Falcon, a simpler, more obvious crowdpleaser, something like Huckleberry Finn with a few crucial revisions. At its centre are a couple of lost and lonely boys, coming to find one another against the florid backdrop of the Florida Everglades. LaBeouf plays Tyler, a taciturn fisherman who's irked his rivals by sabotaging their lobster pots; Zack Gottsingen, an actor with Down's Syndrome, plays Zack, a barrelling lad with Down's Syndrome who stows away on Tyler's boat after escaping the care home for elders in which he's been abandoned. When Tyler sails off, he's cutting his losses, leaving it all behind and sailing into another uncertain future, yet Zack has somewhere to be, post-haste: the wrestling school he's seen advertised on television. The title refers to the younger lad's chosen ringname, but also reflects his desire to take flight, eat what he wants, and transform himself into a hero.
The scene is all set, in other words, for maximum tweeness, yet writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz fend off any sap, first and foremost through their casting and their direction of actors. As recent history has taught us, LaBeouf is pathologically unable to bring to his material anything other than the utmost seriousness; with his sea salt's beard and Florida tan making him appear more brooding than ever here, his presence is like a no-bullshit sign hanging over the picture, swatting quirks and cliches as if they were mosquitoes. When Zack tells Tyler he has Down's, and the latter bluntly responds "I don't give a shit", it doesn't seem cruel so much as the beginnings of a compliment the whole movie extends towards the stowaway - a marker that Tyler intends to approach Zack, as Nilson and Schwartz's camera approaches Gottsingen, on the level, as an equal. There's no special pleading; the way the boatman comes to look out for his fellow traveller (drifter might be the better word), hears him out, and offers a gruff peptalk whenever Zack gets upset or feels sorry for himself is what humanises Tyler, and having LaBeouf on board is proof you can make what your gran would describe as a nice movie without shearing off all its rough edges.
Nilson and Schwartz back up the generally satisfying throughline that relationship provides with rewarding formal choices. Kevin Tent and Nathaniel Fuller's editing is laudably matter-of-fact, eliding any undue sentiment: within a beat of Tyler pulling Zack from the water bullies have forced him into, we're back on the riverbank watching the boatman taking a leak. (No hugs, no tears, no messing about.) Elsewhere, however, the filmmakers foster a relaxed ambience that works in The Peanut Butter Falcon's favour, shooting in quiet, laidback, out-of-the-way locations, and then layering on a score that mixes banjo plucking with traditional folk tunes. If Nilson and Schwartz can't quite match the visual beauty of Jeff Nichols' Mud, 21st century cinema's foremost Twain variant, their film is far less neurotic and knotted-up. No-one's forcing anything here; there isn't a phalanx of producers lurking behind the camera insisting the directors hit certain narrative or emotional beats. The story goes where it goes, like the river Tyler and Zack are travelling on. There are, granted, a few leaps of faith along the way: I wondered whether Dakota Johnson's carehome worker Eleanor, setting out in pursuit of her runaway charge, would agree quite so readily to sail along with Zack and Tyler on a raft, but then you can't miss the delight she takes in becoming their playmate, and thus being freed for even a few days from the daily drudgery. The movie simply scoops her up, as it scoops us up, and carries us all along.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is available on DVD from Monday through Signature Entertainment.