Watch this as soon as you can…
The debut film from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz certainly has the best title of any film in 2019. Not only is the title unique and brilliant, the rest of the film is too. With strong performances and a heart-warming tone throughout, this buddy comedy movie is definitely going to be a crowd-pleaser.
The film has a thin plot. It is essentially a buddies on the road movie, but set on a river for the most part, aligning it closely with Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As expected with films of this genre, the plot is quite simple and loose. Zak (Zack Gottsagen)
has Down syndrome and is living reluctantly in an assisted living facility; Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is his carer. Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a thief and fisherman. Both Zak and Tyler choose to run away from their old lives, and meet chance. Once the journey begins, the plot becomes much more episodic as the characters drift from encounter to encounter. This film has a light and breezy storytelling style. It takes its time and there is no sense of a narrative drive as the characters drift and bond.
This is why the film works so well. The lack of plot allows the filmmakers to focus on the characters and their growing relationship. The central trio have great chemistry and it is a joy to see them interact on the raft. Invigorating these characters are three stellar performances. Shia LaBeouf convincingly captures the cautious reclusiveness of Tyler at the beginning, and sells his gradual opening up as he steps into an older brother role for Zak. Zack Gottsagen is endearing and extremely funny as Zak. The best thing is the humour of the film, prevalent and brilliant throughout, never feels like it is at Zak’s expense. Whoever said comedy is dead in a world gone PC and woke clearly has not seen this film. It is inclusive and humorous. Dakota Johnson does not get loads to do as Eleanor, but, when she is on screen, she is extremely likeable and satisfactorily conveys the central dilemma of Eleanor’s role as a carer: does she let Zak do what makes him happy, or do what all her training says is best for him? The core impetus of this film is the growing relationship between these characters as they travel together. This journey is a moving joy, tugging at the heartstrings as Tyler would tug at his sails, whilst also making you laugh.
Adding to this heart-warming tone is an excellent score. There is sweet, shy music playing in the background of the opening few shots, and this perfectly sets the tone of the movie. This film feels like a nostalgic memory about a lost summer from childhood, and the score is a big part of that (as is the gorgeous shots of the sunset yellow clouds in the sky) The score and cinematography capture the sense of adventure and joyous wonder that defines the film’s central characters.
Whilst this film may be sweet, one disconcerting element is the power dynamic between the three characters. The fact Eleanor and Tyler develop a romantic relationship, whilst Zak the character they both care about and bond over, sets up a parents/child dynamic. This ultimately goes against the core message of the film: you should not underestimate Zak and his abilities simply because he has Down syndrome. However, other than this nit-pick, the film mostly delivers its core message clearly and succinctly. One scene that particularly sticks to mind is when Tyler says to Eleanor “you may not be using the word ‘retard’ but you are sure as hell making him feel like one”. This is a film dedicated to changing the perception of people with Down syndrome as people who are victims, as this can be discriminatory, as is using slurs to insult them. As we see Zak grow as a character and follow his dreams, the challenge against the perception of people with Down syndrome as victims incapable of everything grows stronger.
This film has an important message, but one that never feels forced or obvious. It is told through a remarkably moving story too. With excellent performances, a great score, and fantastic shots to add to the breezy, this moving story has a radiance most will want to soak up and enjoy.