A Mark Twain style adventure about a main character with Down Syndrome. A real story about life with disability, friends, and heart.
Upon seeing the trailer for The Peanut Butter Falcon I was intrigued. Because I’ve never seen a movie where a man with Down Syndrome is the main protagonist. Though the trailer is entertaining and made me want to see the movie, I was still a little leery that it would fall into what I like to call the after school special trap. Where a movie, meant to have a meaningful impact, ends up saccharine and mind numbingly corny.
Even so, I bought my tickets, gave it a try, and I loved it.
A very Mark Twain adventure…
This movie at its heart is a Mark Twain (-esque) adventure. The film centers on Zak ( Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who’s deepest desire is to become a professional wrestler under the tutelage of his favorite wrestler; The Saltwater Redneck. (Thomas Hayden Church).
The only problem? Zak, having been abandoned by his family, is a ward of the state and lives in a small town Louisiana nursing home. This highlights the issues encountered when living in a rural area with a disability. Disabled people (much like Zak) end up feeling stifled by being forced in places where they don’t fit in. Often times, people with disabilities end up in nursing homes to handle the level of care they require, but without access to resources to put them into programs that better suit their circumstances.
Zak, feeling trapped by his situation, sneaks away in the middle of the night to try and find his way to the wrestling school; run by The Saltwater Redneck.
At the beginning of his quest to find the wrestling school, Zak stows away on to Tyler’s (Shia LaBeouf) fishing boat. Tyler is fisherman and crab pot thief, with a good heart but is a hell of a mess. He is running from his past and the people he stole from.
After discovering Zac, Tyler decides to help him get where he’s going, thus starting the modern day Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn tale. The bonding scenes between the characters are funny and thought provoking, drawing me in and stealing my heart.
There are in-depth conversations about what makes someone a good person and bad person, conversations about how Zak’s Down Syndrome effects his self worth and how the world at large views him. It’s also here at that you learn Tyler is grieving the death of his brother (played by Jon Bernthal) and is also battling survivor’s guilt.
My favorite thing about this movie was the fact that it didn’t shy away from hard subjects. Such as the discrimination Zak faces by people who don’t take the time to look beyond the surface. The use of the word retard did make me flinch, but I liked that the writers didn’t pretend that ignorant people no longer exist in an attempt to be politically correct.
I really enjoyed LeBoeuf’s performance along side Gottsagen.
Tyler is a rough around the edges guy but he treats Zak as his equal in a way I don’t believe the character often experiences. Through Tyler, Zak gains independence and confidence. Through Zak, Tyler finds optimism and acceptance. It’s a beautiful portrayal of friendship between someone non-disabled and someone living with a disability.
Dakota Johnson gives a lovely performance as well. Playing Eleanor the nursing home’s social worker who tracks Zak down and gets pulled into the crazy adventure.
Eleanor is a well meaning person who often is over protective of Zak. Often robbing him of the independence Zak needs and deserves. She doesn’t even realize she’s doing it until Tyler points it out in an unflinchingly honest way. I’m paraphrasing… “Just because you aren’t calling him retarded, doesn’t mean you’re not treating him that way by taking away opportunities for him to do things for himself.” She’s immediately offended and fights back but eventually realizes he’s right (in my very favorite scene in the movie – which I’m not going to spoil because it’s the best scene of the movie).
Zak eventually finds the wrestling school and gets to fulfill his dream. Tyler’s thieving eventually catches up to him, and Eleanor has to make choices regarding where Zak ends up. The movie ends perfectly, though I’m not going to give that away either.
The movie is beautifully shot despite being a small budget independent film. You really do feel as though you’ve stepped into a Mark Twain novel. The cinematography was awesome and added to the viewing experience.
The film has received a lot of buzz and good reviews. Though it likely won’t receive critical acclaim. I don’t think that matters in the long run, it does wonders in the way of representation and manages to make statements on things like disability and independence, without spelling it out for the audience.
Other movies that set out to make statements often feel cheesy and overdone but that’s not the case here. Maybe that’s because the people making the movie (Tyler Nilson & Mike Schwartz), just wanted to make a movie with their friend Zack, so they did.
I tend to agree with what LeBeouf says in this interview. The movie has a lot of fucking heart and you should watch it. You might walk away smiling and feeling just the tiniest bit better about the state of the world, I know I did.