The only word to describe The Peanut Butter Falcon is "nice". I use the word "only" literally. Niceness is the film's defining characteristic: it was made for nice reasons, it is nice to its characters (who are nice people), it is nice to its audience. It is not in any way interesting. It feels like every rural-set American indie film that came out in the wake of David Gordon Green's 2000 debutΒ George Washington was combined, and this film is the exactly most average version of that form, and then it was put in a box and preserved for a decade or more (even the one solitary cell phone we see looks like it came from 2004). But damned if it isn't nice.

Niceness is a draw for plenty of viewers, and I won't begrudge them the experience of enjoying the movie. But I can't persuade myself that it's enough to make The Peanut Butter Falcon a particularly engaging work of cinema. It's just kind of just there. It is the most "kind of just there" movie I have seen in a good long while, and in fact that in and of itself is somewhat inspiring. For we used to get these "kind of just there" character dramedies on the order of several times a month back in the 1990s and 2000s, and it feels like they've been crowded out of the theatrical ecosystem. But here comes The Peanut Butter Falcon, managing to wrangle for itself a wide release, and during the summer no less. Maybe there is hope for the modest grown-up movie if something like this (and it is nothing if not modest) could gain some reasonable level of prominence.

If that praise is faint enough, I can get on with the damning. The thing is, The Peanut Butter Falcon is in fact so nice that it somewhat forgets to have stakes. It looks like it has stakes. If I laid out the plot synopsis, I bet you'd be able to point to something and say, "well those are the stakes, right there". But in the moment of watching it, nothing ever feels like it has any kind of urgency, anything that propels it forward. The film is frankly a bit listless, done in perhaps by the sticky summer humidity that feels tangible in nearly every scene and is maybe the one genuinely admirable aesthetic triumph of the piece.

So the situation is this: Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome and no family to speak of, has been placed by the state of North Carolina into a nursing facility for the elderly, on the inarguable grounds that the state of North Carolina couldn't be bothered to find a better solution. After two years of this, Zak is desperate for a chance to actually go out and do a little bit of living, and so he flees the facility in the dead of night, aided by his aged roommate Carl (Bruce Dern). His primary caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is strong-armed into going on a hunt to find him before the administration has to go to the unpleasant extreme of reporting this to the proper authorities. Nearby, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman in the Outer Banks, has arrived at a crisis: having never emotionally or materially recovered from the death of his brother, he's taken to poaching crabs from the psychopathic Duncan (John Hawkes). Angry and nihilistic, he sets Duncan's cages on fire, and hauls ass out of there on a boat. As chance and the rule of conservation of narrative would have it, this is the same boat where Zak was sleeping under a tarp. So the two forge an agreement: Tyler wants to head south to Florida, where he expects to find work and be far enough from Duncan that he won't have to keep one eye open when he sleeps, and on his way down there, he'll drop Zak off at the tiny town where Zak's favorite wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) has a school. Or at least had one, when he recorded the ancient VHS tape that Zak has been watching like a religious text during his time at the old folks' home.

Thus begins a travelogue on that great American theme, the raft trip. Zak and Tyler bond, obviously, and when Eleanor catches up to them, Tyler finds himself protecting his new buddy from the chilly world of bureaucratic shuffling that will most likely haunt Zak for the rest of his life. As you'd expect. But here's a question: how does Eleanor catch up to them? How, even more so, does Duncan keep tracking them? The Peanut Butter Falcon has such a shambling, loosey-goosey narrative that you'd hardly notice it, but almost nothing happens in this plot that doesn't happen for arbitrary reasons. People just happen to be in the right place (or the most dramatically salient wrong place) at exactly the right time, and this occurs over and over across 97 minutes that, coupled with the lack of any real narrative momentum, feel rather longer. Nothing is worked for, nothing seems difficult for anybody (the question of what Zak and Tyler are eating on their multi-day trek down the Pamlico Sound is left almost flagrantly unanswered), and nobody has to have even a scrap of intelligence for the plot to proceed exactly as it does. This proceeds all the way to the end, an astounding cop-out that lets everybody including the bad guys get exactly what they want, dramatic logic and emotional resonance be fucked.

Basically, the whole thing is just a bit contrivance to facilitate a hang-out movie between Zak and Tyler, two different frustrated souls making strong friendships for the first time in their life. And as far as that's the film's go, it works. LaBeouf, an actor I tend to find anywhere from dull to actively off-putting, is at worst no problem here, and at best finds something pleasingly naturalistic in the Southern accent and sweaty muscularity of his character, and his protective affection for Zak is unmistakable and unforced. Gottsagen, meanwhile, is actively great: writer-directors Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz conceived the entire production around giving the actor (who, like his character, has Down syndrome) a starring role, so it's no real surprise that it works as a showcase; but hell, calculated showcase roles are as old as movie stars. And this is a good one, letting Gottsagen knock out a bunch of comic one-liners, do some ad-libbing, and have a broadly sentimental arc that's never specifically sentimental in any given moment. Nor does the role ever once use his condition as a crutch; it's merely a characteristic, and not one that's played up for audience sympathy even once.

If The Peanut Butter Falcon has a clear selling point, it's the chance to see Gottsagen firing on all cylinders; he's charismatic and genuinely funny, and one presumes that the film industry won't have much of an idea what to do with him, now that this film has put him on the map. There's not much else than that: LaBeouf recedes the further into the film we go, and Johnson's character is a powerfully inert non-starter, a wholly functional role that savagely interrupts the interesting (if not necessarily good) momentum of her career over the last couple of years. Stylistically, it's a pretty clear-cut "get the actors in frame, and light them for proper exposure" exercise, relying entirely on the landscape of North Carolina's Outer Banks to give the film any visual interest at all (although there is one very interesting top-down shot in a cornfield); narratively, it's a pack of clichΓ©s bundled together with fairy tale logic that has nothing to do with the blunt realism of the settings. There's just not much to it. But there is warm fuzzy sweetness and light, and I know there are people who appreciate that kind of thing more than I do.