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Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

August 23, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

There has been a lot of talk in the movie industry lately about increased representation for minority groups, and that’s a good thing. It’s long overdue. But the one group that all too often gets left out of this conversation is people with disabilities.

The problem isn’t really that there aren’t enough actors. There simply aren’t enough diverse roles being written, and the films and TV shows that do get made about differently abled characters usually cast non-disabled actors, an unfortunate phenomenon in which stories get told, but opportunities still don’t go to the actors who need them.

This is exactly what makes a film like The Peanut Butter Falcon, which won the Audience Award at SXSW, so refreshing and, yes, important. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, who also co-wrote the sensitive script, this is a film that actually tries to move the needle in terms of representation, and does a damn fine job of it. The story centres around Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome in North Carolina, who has no family to take care of him and has been placed by the state in a retirement home with seniors, a place where he doesn’t really belong but has been living for over two years.

Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, spurred on by his hero, an old school wrestler who goes by the name the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). According to an old VHS tape that Zak obsessively watches, the Salt Water Redneck has a wrestling school in Ayden, North Carolina, and he is determined to get there. Zak has been labelled a “flight risk” and isn’t allowed to leave, so with the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), he slips through the bars that have been installed on his window in the middle of the night, and runs away in nothing but his underwear.

Zak ends up encountering Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local crab fisherman on the run from Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), who are after him for stealing their crab pods. Tyler is making his way to Florida, and reluctantly agrees to help Zak get to his destination in Ayden along the way. But it’s not long before Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a young worker from the retirement home who shares a special bond with Zak, comes after them, determined to bring him back. The trio ends up on a boat and road trip that is equal parts offbeat and endearing.

One of the things that I really liked about The Peanut Butter Falcon is that Tyler treats Zak like any other adult, and doesn’t really act differently around him just because he has Down syndrome. At first Tyler is annoyed at having a tag-along, worried that Zak will slow him down or blow his cover, but then a bond starts to form between them and they start hanging out like typical buddies, firing buckshots and getting drunk on moonshine. This dynamic is key to the success of the film, and LaBeouf and Gottsagen play it beautifully, with a very natural and believable chemistry between them.

The performances are a big part of why the film works so well. Nilson and Schwartz had developed a very good working relationship with Gottsagen through their work at a filmmaking camp for people with and without disabilities, where they first cast him in a short film. They wrote the script specifically for him, and struggled to get it made for five years, with many studios being reluctant to make a movie starring an actor with Down syndrome. The young actor does an excellent job of carrying the film, delivering a completely honest and realistic performance. LaBeouf continues to prove himself as one of our finest actors, allowing himself to appear both rugged and vulnerable, and Johnson delivers one of her best performances, bringing a quiet sensitivity to her role here.

The film also does a really good job of directly addressing ableism, including the well-meaning sort of ableism that many caregivers and workers are guilty of, which generally comes not out of malice but rather from the bigotry of low expectations. Even Eleanor’s way of speaking to Zak can come across as condescending at first, but Tyler admonishes her. Zak is an adult, he reminds her, and he should be treated as such. Others use the “R” word to address Zak, and each use of it stings, with the film fully understanding of just how insulting it is.

These aren’t themes that ever really get addressed onscreen, and in fact one of the only other similar movies that I can think of is The Rainbow Kid, a small Canadian film from several years ago that also followed a young man with Down syndrome on an unlikely quest and was similarly unsentimental in its approach. While The Peanut Butter Falcon does become a bit of a wish fulfillment fantasy at the end, it’s also not inspiration porn, and never condescends to its characters.

The Mark Twain-inspired story plays out as an engaging and heartfelt yarn that touchingly charts the formation of an unlikely friendship, and the plot has echoes of an Americana-infused folk tale. The film also has touches of religious symbolism, including an encounter with a blind backwoods preacher (Rob Thomas) who praises Jesus and offers baptism, just one of the memorable and oddly moving scenarios that our characters find themselves in.

On a technical level, the film offers beautiful cinematography, a great roots music soundtrack, and a script that is equal parts moving, charming and gently funny. In terms of representation, The Peanut Butter Falcon has the potential to be a real game-changer. See it for the wonderful performances from Gottsagen, LaBeouf and Johnson. See it to support a film that actually pushes things forward in terms of visibility for people with disabilities, who are rarely represented this well onscreen.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing in limited release at selected theatres in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Winnipeg, and is expanding to Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton, as well as additional Canadian cities, on August 30th.

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