Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
The Peanut Butter Falcon is an independently made comedy drama film released in 2019 written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. The film depicts the journey between a young man with Down Syndrome and a troubled fisherman as they try to escape from their former carer and vengeful rivals respectively. The film stars Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and the debuting Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Downs for whom the film was written for. Despite initially only being released in limited cinemas, a positive reception from critics and word-of-mouth helped the film become the biggest indie hit of the year with global takings of more than $23 million. The film earned praise for raising awareness of Down Syndrome and Gottsagen's performance earned him recognition and led to him being the first person with Downs to present an award alongside LaBeouf at the Academy Awards ceremony.
What's It About?
Zak is a young man with Down Syndrome living in an assisted living facility in the southern states of the US. Despite getting on with the elderly residents there and his room-mate Carl, Zak knows he doesn't belong there and constantly tries to escape in order to follow his dreams of becoming a professional wrestler under the tutelage of his idol, the Salt Water Redneck. One night, he succeeds and slips out in the middle of the night, which results in a major headache for his carer Eleanor, who is tasked by her manager to find Zak and bring him back before any harm comes to him. Zak, meanwhile, runs through the night in just his underwear before falling asleep in the back of a boat.
The next morning, Zak wakes up to discover that the boat's owner - a troubled drifter called Tyler - is fleeing from the violent vengeance of two men whose fishing equipment Tyler destroyed. After a close escape, Zak decides to follow Tyler who reluctantly agrees to escort Zak to the Redneck's wrestling school. As the two men begin to bond and Zak starts some rudimentary training, Eleanor soon tracks them down and finds herself questioning what's actually best for Zak...
What's to Like?
The film is essentially a modern re-telling of Huckleberry Finn, a quirky and unusual adventure through the swamps and bayous of the southern states. It's beautifully filmed with long shots of lush green forests and dusty fields and water looking calm, still and inviting. By contrast, most of the characters look worn and rough which is in keeping with the lives they lead. LaBeouf gives a great performance as Tyler, a man with an interesting back story that slowly reveals itself as the film progresses. Together with Gottsagen who brings his natural charisma to the screen, the two share real chemistry and bring an authenticity to the friendship they share. Johnson, who looks more cultured and refined than her co-stars, is the odd one out but provides the film with the opportunity to ask questions about the ethics of care. Zak clearly enjoys his freedom and spending time with Tyler but is it the best way to look after him? In fact, does he need looking after at all? I have no direct experience of Down Syndrome but I found the film's narrative uplifting and positive, something we all need more of.
I also really enjoyed the soundtrack, a stripped-back and acoustic compilation of folk songs that is reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Watching the film is a pleasant and unhurried affair, a gentle and genuinely life-affirming fable that has elements of feeling like an unhinged dream. I enjoyed spending time with these characters and while the film doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, it doesn't really need to. Like wrestling itself, you know the story and which direction it is going in but you can still enjoy the ride regardless. And if nothing else, it's refreshing to see a film that gives a platform to someone like Gottsagen who shines a light onto his condition and shows us that if we are determined enough, any of us can achieve our dreams.
- Gottsagen met the directors back in 2011 at a camp for disabled actors and he encouraged them to hire him for a film. So the film was written around him and included some of his real-life desires into the script. They also wrote the film to involve people and places that they knew they could film for free.
- Among its awards at a number of film festivals, the film also won an award from the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2019. Their Seal Of Authentic Representation was given to the filmmakers for their accurate depiction of people with disabilities.
- Dern has starred opposite many members of Johnson's family - he appeared in Marnie in 1964 opposite her grandmother Tippi Hedren, he appeared with her father Don Johnson in Django Unchained and in Mulholland Falls, he featured alongside her mother Melanie Griffith.
What's Not to Like?
My immediate response to this question is 'not enough Mick Foley' who pops up alongside fellow pro wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts in a cameo. But personal bias aside, the film has an odd quality to it that makes it hard to relate to. Its dreamy style and loose grip on reality makes the film feel like a fable or fairy-tale of some sort and if we take that mind-set, the positive messages about inclusion and ability are less sincere somehow. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it so I'll try to concentrate on less abstract issues. Johnson isn't as captivating as her co-stars and her character feels less defined as well. I also wasn't initially a fan of the way Tyler's backstory was handled - there are occasional flashbacks to an obviously close relationship between Tyler and Mark but there is very little meat on the bone so it takes a while to work out the significance.
I was also a smidge disappointed with Haden Church's appearance who never really convinces as a faded pro wrestler, both in terms of physicality and character. Of course, it's important to remember that the standard for such roles is Mickey Rourke's career highlight starring in The Wrestler, so it's maybe unfair to expect the same. Thinking about it, the film doesn't offer much for supporting characters to sink their teeth into - the only supporting roles with any significant screen time are villainous hillbillies John Hawkes and tattooed rapper Yelawolf and neither of these roles are that well defined either. Maybe the script needed some more exposition or expansion on these characters so we understand their choices.
Should I Watch It?
The Peanut Butter Falcon might be a bit too 'indie' for some but the film has plenty of heart and spirit behind it and it's a difficult film to dislike. It should be applauded for raising its issues and positive depiction of disability, a term the film makes a mockery of. It's a genuinely affecting and uplifting film that might be a bit niche but isn't one to avoid by any stretch. It's worth the effort to track it down and if you do, you'll be richly rewarded.
Great For: positive depictions for people with Down Syndrome, pro wrestling fans, rednecks from Georgia
Not So Great For: action junkies, Shia LaBeouf's criminal record, assisted living facilities
What Else Should I Watch?
Few mainstream movies seem to offer much exposure for those with Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with physical growth issues, distinguishable facial features and some degree of mental degradation. Since its controversial use as an excuse for its killer in 1968's Twisted Nerve, many filmmakers and studios appear to avoid the condition although a number of supporting characters in later films do feature it. But Down's is rarely the focus of the film so audiences simply don't have any exposure to the condition while actors with Down's aren't afforded the opportunities enjoyed by non-Down's actors. Hopefully, films like The Peanut Butter Falcon become more common-place in the near future.
Pro wrestling might gets covered by films a bit more frequently but rarely does the subject result in what you'd call a classic. Comedies like Nacho Libre and Ready To Rumble (a film so disastrous that it helped kill off the WCW promotion) are best forgotten as goofy indulgences but sometimes, the subject can be in something other than a silly rib-tickler. Fighting With My Family is the real-life story of former WWE star Paige's journey from rural East England to the bright lights of the WWE while The Wrestler is a heart-breaking depiction of an aging grappler facing health problems as he clings to the remains of his superstar status and is largely remembered for Mickey Rourke's astonishing performance.
Thomas Haden Church
Clint / The Salt Water Redneck
|Directors||Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz|
Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz
Release Date (UK)
18th October, 2019
Adventure, Comedy, Drama
© 2021 Benjamin Cox