It’s like ‘Rain Man’ on moonshine

Somewhere between the title and the insanely cute trailer, The peanut butter hawk seemed totally failed. It all sounded like one of those prepackaged Fox Searchlight flicks that flaunt the street cred of independent films while touting a star-studded cast that most little movies could never dream of affording, in a premise that seems ready for The Disney Channel.

The film stars Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a young man with Down’s syndrome who lives in the care of Eleanor (played by Dakota Johnson) in a retirement home. Zak’s frequent attempts to escape have taken Eleanor apart, though Zak’s roommate Carl (played by fiery Bruce Dern) encourages her great efforts. Meanwhile, a young man working on a pleasure dock (played by Shia LaBeouf) is on the run and ends up protecting a recently released Zak. The story takes the form of a chase, albeit a slow one, as the two outlaws are on foot and Zak is barefoot and wearing only his underwear.

From the start, the editing, rhythm and humor are presented with unexpected clarity. Likewise, LaBeouf’s energetic performance; I lost my enthusiasm for his work at first, but his controlled and introspective character performances are pretty good. Likewise, Johnson, who is excellent here and excellent in any movie that doesn’t include a red room. However, this is Gottsagen’s movie (the actor has Down syndrome in real life) and he wears it skillfully. Gottsagen, in his film debut, has a number of scenes that require him to be thorough and to dig deep emotionally. He completely holds his own, which is remarkable when your co-stars include Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Hayden Church.

The peanut butter hawk This is not the detour through the unbearable fantasy that I feared, although it is certainly offbeat. At some point, he leaves reality behind and embraces a romantic outlook on life. When the two chefs carve helmets out of watermelon rinds, you know we’re clearly watching a movie… or maybe we see it as Zak would see these events happen. Since Zak is the central figure, the film as a whole, right down to its wrestling subplot, could be seen as his retelling of events as he would later recount them. Work for me.

There is a beautiful scene where Carl and Zak have to cross a river, where the suspense unexpectedly rises. In the third act, everything becomes more and more unpredictable, which works in his favor. That said, there are verbal and visual references made to Mark Twain and “Lord of the Flies,” both of which are far from the league of this movie. Writer-directors Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson have managed to create a story that ends before being an outright fairy tale, although questions of logic persist during the second act, which makes it seem like he sheepishly wants to plunge his toes into the Coen Brothers water.

It made its local premiere at the Maui Film Festival in June, where it was well received and arrived as a surprise sleeper. In the back-to-school movie canine era, it will also play as a nice alternative to all the shiny, overproduced swill that is currently making money from customers and then disappearing altogether. As much as I didn’t fully indulge in this wacky concoction (a videotape of an ’80s wrestler becomes a major plot instrument – it’s that kind of movie), I won’t forget it. Any movie that has nice supporting turns for Jon Bernthal and Jake “The Snake” Roberts is going to leave a lasting impression.

With its mixture of grain and sweetness, it’s like Rain man on moonshine. This is a completely accurate description and the best way to recommend it.

Three stars

Rated PG-13/93 Min.

Image courtesy IMDB

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