“I’m a Down Syndrome person,” proclaims Zak (Zack Gottsagen), the unique protagonist of first time filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon. “I don’t give a shit,” is the terse response from Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), the troublemaker who reluctantly takes Zak under his wing. It may seem like a cruel exchange, but for Zak - and, indeed, for representation in mainstream cinema - it’s an important moment, the first time another human has refused to reductively define him by his condition.
Zak and Tyler become unlikely travelling companions when, with the help of an elderly roommate (Bruce Dern in yet another role that requires him to merely stay put; nice work if you can get it!) the former breaks out of the nursing home where he’s been discarded simply because the state has nowhere else to put him. Clad in only his Y-fronts, Zak flees to the local marina, where he hides on the small boat owned by Tyler, who himself is forced to run for his life after setting fire to the crab cages of rival fisherman Duncan (John Hawkes, cementing his status as the king of white trash acting).
Tyler initially ditches Zak but is forced to intervene when some cruel kids goad Zak into diving dangerously into a river from a high platform. Zak is intent on fulfilling his dream of entering a wrestling school run by a grappler who goes by the stage name of ‘The Salt Water Redneck’ (Thomas Haden Church), and as it’s on the way to Tyler’s destination of Florida, where he plans to pursue his own ambition of running a chartered fishing service, Tyler reluctantly decides to take Zak along. Meanwhile, Zak’s caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), is on a frantic quest to track down the young man, and knowing his obsession with The Salt Water Redneck, follows the trail she believes he’s taking.
The Peanut Butter Falcon argues that people with Down syndrome should be treated no differently than anyone else. While that’s a commendably egalitarian view, the simple truth is that they are different, and do possess particular needs that the movie conveniently overlooks. Like Juno and Beasts of the Southern Wild, it’s the latest movie that attempts to manipulate its audience by framing healthcare institutions in a villainous light. The home that Zak escapes from is portrayed as so uncaring that its overseer refuses to contact the authorities, instead sending Eleanor off on her own to find the young man. When Eleanor meets up with Tyler, the film adopts that awful trope of the immature male screw-up who teaches an uptight, well-educated woman that there’s more to life than book learnin’, implausibly turning Eleanor onto the idea that he knows what’s best for Zak, because a white man always knows best, even when he’s a petty thief with a chip on his shoulder like Tyler. Eleanor briefly mentions how Zak’s blood-sugar levels need to be maintained, but the movie never addresses this any further, as to do so would be to derail its dubious message of equality.
Nilson and Schwartz’s debut treats Zak like any other movie character, so it feels odd to have to frame both Zak and the actor playing him by their condition. But the simple truth is that not since Chris Burke’s portrayal of Corky on ‘80s TV drama Life Goes On has a Down Syndrome actor been gifted such a meaty role. The trouble is, despite how much screen time is devoted to Zak, he’s still - like so many minority characters in American movies - little more than a prop in the redemption arc of a damaged white asshole.
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For some viewers, the misogyny and anti-intellectualism of The Peanut Butter Falcon will be a deciding factor as to whether you can embrace the film or not. Such libertarian politics rankled me personally, but much like recent Oscar winner Green Book, it’s a film that transcends its misguided identity politics with electric performances and compelling if undeniably manipulative storytelling. LeBeouf has become so known for his bizarre real-life behavior that it’s easy to forget just what a magnetic screen presence he has developed into. As with the film itself, LeBeouf’s Tyler is so disarmingly charismatic that any political pearl clutching has to be put aside until after the credits have rolled, when you can finally gather your thoughts and accept that you’ve been suckered into swallowing an awful lot of illiberal nonsense. Like Kristen Stewart, Johnson’s associations with a silly mainstream franchise mean she doesn’t quite get the credit she deserves, and though her Eleanor is a character who exists merely to validate her male opposite, she brings a warmth and humanity to the under-developed role. But it’s first time performer Gottsagen who will deservedly take up the column inches. Without his convincing turn, the film’s thesis would crumble. Much of his performance appears improvised, which keeps his two more famous co-stars on their toes, and there’s a real sense of intimate connection between the trio. Will this be a one off for Gottsagen or will The Peanut Butter Falcon do for his career what The Station Agent did for Peter Dinklage? Fingers crossed it’s the latter.
The Peanut Butter Falcon - 3 1/2 Stars Out of 5
Directed by: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz; Starring: Shia LaBeouf, John Hawkes, Dakota Johnson Zack Gottsagen, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal