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THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON: Road trips, rivers, tightie-whities and the Salt Water Redneck

When I penned this review in the summer of 2019, I opened by predicting that it would mark the first step in a come-back year for Shia LaBeouf; and now that 2020 is upon us, I think my prediction holds true.

LaBeouf is the one-time child prodigy who drove the success of TV’s “Even Stevens,” along with Hollywood’s “Holes” and “Transformers.” But in ensuing years, the actor’s offscreen troubles -- particularly some nasty public-intoxication antics -- muddied his transition to bankable adult star.

Now LaBeouf has written a film about his own tempestuous childhood; with courageous performances and solid reviews, “Honey Boy” -- released November 2019 -- stars both Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as the troubled actor, while LaBeouf plays his own father.

And then there’s “Peanut Butter Falcon,” a somewhat earlier film that currently enjoys an impressive 96% audience-rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

And that’s about right.

Comical, heartfelt, beautifully acted and handsomely filmed, “Falcon” is the story of a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who flees his ill-suited confinement at a retirement home. Hooked on a video about professional wrestling, Zak is headed to a training school; somewhat vulnerable, since he left in only his tighty-whities, the resolute Zak hooks up with Tyler, a young refugee (LaBeouf) who despite his own problems agrees to get him to his goal.

So “Falcon” is a road movie -- where the road consists of weedy North Carolina backwaters where Tyler ekes out a living. It has a little bit of religion, and a little bit more romance in the form of Dakota Johnson -- as a retirement-home staffer who comes after Zak and gets caught up in the trek. Along with various goofball adventures, there’s plenty of inspiring camaraderie and a good deal of healing for LaBeouf’s reluctant hero, who is still tormented by the recent loss of an older brother.

It’s fair to call “Falcon” a feel-good movie, yet because Tyler is on the lam from two vicious rednecks, there’s just enough danger and disappointment to keep the tale from getting overly sentimental.

Performances are sensational, highlighted by newbie Zack Gottshagen in the lead -- loyal and lovable, but never cute or saintly. The filmmakers’ willingness to hand him whole scenes and big chunks of dialog is an object-lesson in Tyler’s insistence that Zak doesn’t need to be babied or coddled.

LaBeouf and Johnson are terrifically engaging, and the supporting cast includes brief but memorable roles for Bruce Dern (Zak’s roomie at the home) and Thomas Haden Church as a wrestling phenom with the irresistible monicker “Salt Water Redneck.” John Bernthal, playing Tyler’s bro in flashbacks, bears an uncanny resemblance to his onscreen sibling; also excellent is the blind but wild-eyed fellow appearing as the kindly religious zealot -- an actor whose name I could not find anywhere online.

Perhaps he’s some well-known performer wanting to keep his presence here a secret -- which is fair enough.

But let’s not do the same with this wonderful film.

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