I want to see more films like this. I want more films where actors with Down Syndrome play characters with Down Syndrome. I want more films that celebrate kindness and vulnerable male friendships.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is about two men on the run. It’s a lesson in listening; often when we think we are doing the best for other people, we’re not actually paying attention to what they’re telling us.
There’s enough big name actors to give the film star appeal; Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Shia LaBeouf, Thomas Haden Church. But it’s a film obviously and beautifully created by writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz as a platform for a debut by actor Zack Gottsagen. Nilson and Schwartz discovered his talent at a camp for actors with disabilities and wrote the role especially for him.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is 22 and has no family or money. He’s living in an elderly care home because the state has decided he needs constant care, but has nowhere else to put him. Eleanor is his main carer, and despite meaning well, infantilises and underestimates him and is forced to label Zak a ‘flight risk’ because he keeps trying to escape. He wants to escape to a wrestling school, run by his hero, the Saltwater Redneck, who he watches on repeat in vintage wrestling videos.
Zak’s made friends with all the elderly residents, and convinces his room-mate Carl (Bruce Dern) to help him escape. He runs, covered in soap, away from the care home wearing nothing but white undies. And he’s ecstatic. He makes it down to the estuary and hides on the closest boat he can find.
The boat belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). Tyler is coming to terms with the death of his brother, and how to make a living in a lawless wetland where fellow crab fisherman stole his patch. After setting fire to the crab nets of his rivals, Tyler escapes by boat, only to find Zak as a sea-sick stowaway.
And so begins the journey to Florida – for Tyler to find better fishing, and for Zak to find The Saltwater Redneck. They’re pursued by furious crab fishermen and Eleanor, who is tasked with finding Zak. It’s all against the picturesque back-drop of the North Carolina Outer Banks. A lot of the characters you meet along the way aren’t hugely famous, but seem of and from the place the film is shot. They add to the adventure of Zak and Tyler’s journey.
It’s almost child-like, watching these two mates make rafts and sail down a river on a mission that’s ultimately make believe. It’s a reminder of how much fun adventures with your friends are and why we should all never stop playing. The frat boy slang for friendship (bro-dawg) Zak uses is interspersed with some achingly beautiful lines, “Tyler, I am going to give you all of my wishes for my birthday.”
Zak and Tyler are the perfect foils for each other. Tyler with his tortured tough guy on the run, chaotic and hurting, and Zak is earnest, hopeful and honest and open. Zak isn’t used as inspiration porn. Able bodied actors play disabled actors and win Oscars for it. But Zak gets a hero’s journey. Although we do see him in various stages of undress, sometimes dunking his head underwater so Tyler and Eleanor can have a conversation about him without him, he’s never a figure of ridicule. One of my favourite lines in the movie, is when Zak tells Tyler, “I’m a person with down syndrome.” And immediately Tyler replies, “I don’t really care.”
I found myself not caring that I cried three times during this movie. I cried when I realised Zak, Elanor and Tyler are all mourning something they’ve lost. I cried when Zak and Tyler dance under the stars and eat peanut butter out of the jar. I cried when the film finished with an emotional one two.
I mean sure, this is a really cheesy journey not destination film. It’s a real ode to the family we choose. It’s a gritty comedy about the transformative power of friendship. But honestly, it was really nice to see an arthouse film at Somerville that wasn’t obviously about pain and suffering.
If you can’t see the film until it comes out in cinemas, you can listen to the soundtrack. It’s bluegrass, country songs and gospel hymns. The feeling of quiet euphoria and hope the playlist fills you up with is a nice taster to all the big feelings The Peanut Butter Falcon will leave you with.
Five peanut butter jars out of five.
Words by Katie McAllister
Katie apologies for the delay with her response.
Image by Joshua Cahill