The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)
Director: Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz
Screenwriters: Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz
Starring: Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Thomas Hayden Church, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Jon Bernthal, John Hawkes
Being seen on screen is an invaluable kickstart to greater representation and diversity in film. The Peanut Butter Falcon is by no means perfect, but it’s a big-hearted step in the right direction.
We follow Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down’s Syndrome who runs away from home to achieve his dream of becoming a professional wrestler like his hero the “Saltwater Redneck”. Along the way he joins up with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is on the run both from genuine threats and from himself, and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s concerned carer who catches up with them on the road. The trio then build a makeshift raft and drift leisurely downriver, all the time growing closer, having fun and looking to find their purpose in life.
British actor and comedian Sally Phillips, whose eldest son has Down’s, recently made an impassioned plea to stop termination of pregnancies following a Down’s diagnosis. She argued that being born with a disability should no longer be considered taboo, society’s pressure to be “normal” shouldn’t affect a mother’s decision and that with huge medical advances and the right loving environment, people with Down’s syndrome can live long, happy and fulfilling lives.
After we witness the latest in Zak’s spirited escape attempts, he is sat down and told “I’m going to have to make you a flight risk”. This euphemism is perhaps the cruellest thing said to Zak in the whole film, more-so than any more explicit discriminatory slur hurled his way. A young adult with Down’s Syndrome has found himself, through no fault of his own, living in a retirement home completely ill-suited to his social developmental needs and, to add insult to injury, he’s just been reduced to an action to be prevented, a disaster waiting to happen. All he wants is to have a go at being a wrestler and to make some friends closer to his own age so he can invite them to his birthday party; is that really too much to ask?
At one point Tyler name-checks Mark Twain, and there is more than a little of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” about the first half of the film especially, when it’s just Zak and Tyler traveling and talking. It’s a gentle adventure built on friendship and surrogate families set out in the wilder, sweatier regions of the USA (here it’s Georgia and Florida rather than the Mississippi).
Zak’s travel companions have very different ideas about what he needs to thrive. Eleanor is over-protective and Tyler is too reckless, but both care deeply for Zak. Tyler is getting to be the fun and supportive big brother who was taken away from him too soon, Eleanor takes on a more maternal role. The best thing for Zak is likely somewhere between the two – believed in but not mollycoddled, adored but under no illusions about the cruel realities of the world, and always seen as an equal.
The cast have great chemistry together. Zack Gottsagen is a real find, with natural charisma and many shades and memorable moments to bring to his character in defiance of (as a big middle finger to) his disability and anyone who might doubt him because of it. LaBeouf and Johnson both do subtle and heartfelt work in support and there are pleasing small roles for Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church as Zak’s mischievous elderly ally in the home and his gone-to-seed wrestling hero respectively. About the only disappointment performance-wise is the normally excellent John Hawkes who is lumbered with an underwritten and pretty generic bad guy role.
The key story beats are a little predictable, the general character arcs obvious to anyone who’s seen more than a handful of movies, but the moments that matter are all meaningfully executed. A sprinkling of small, emotionally intelligent and quietly beautiful moments more than make up for the familiarity found elsewhere. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a showcase for a shining new acting talent in Zack Gottsagen, a reminder of the versatility of LaBeouf and Johnson, and a feelgood wrestling road movie to boot. The complete package might be slightly less than the sum of its parts, but its message still soars.