Movie Review - The Peanut Butter Falcon

The only films that I can recall about a person with Down Syndrome or some kind of mental disability that places that person in a leading role are Of Mice and Men (1939) and Rain Man (1988). Both films were about the mentally disabled person going on a road trip with another man tasked with looking after the disabled person. Both films are about the familial bond or else the friendship between the two. This film, written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, is another to add to this hopefully growing list. The difference here is that the actor playing the disabled person actually has the condition that he's portraying. Previously, actors who weren't disabled pretended they had the disability. Here, there's no pretending, which obviously adds a genuineness and an authenticity that other narrative films that have tackled this subject have lacked. There have been documentaries were people with disabilities were the subject. This is however a disabled actor in the lead role.

Zack Gottsagen in his feature debut stars as Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who was abandoned by his family and became a ward of the state, assigned to a retirement home for the elderly. Zak feels like a prisoner despite having befriended all of the residents and even all of the staff. However, he's crafted a plan to escape with the goal of going to a small town in North Carolina called Ayden. It's there he hopes to find a wrestling school run by his idol, a local wrestler named Salt-Water Redneck. Zak dreams of one day being a wrestler like him or in the WWE.

The film mostly is about the present tense. We follow Zak as he pursues that goal and he's not going to stop until he accomplishes it. This is all well and good, but there is obviously some past trauma in his life that the film virtually ignores. His family abandoned him. Despite it being mentioned once, it's never brought up or addressed again. I would have had no problem ignoring Zak's past, as the film does, if the past of the other protagonist here weren't integrated into the narrative.

Shia LaBeouf (American Honey and Transformers) also stars as Tyler, a fisherman who works in the Outer Banks of North Carolina near a crab farm or some kind of fishery where other water-men do their jobs. He gets into trouble because he's started stealing crab pots from other fishermen, essentially stealing their income. Two of the fishermen, Duncan and Ratboy, beat him up for doing so. Later, Tyler destroys all their crab pots in what is either a fit of rage or an act of sheer stupidity. He then is forced to go on the run or else Duncan and Ratboy might kill him. He doesn't seem to have any other friends or any family.

If one is wondering why, Nilson and Schwartz reveal in flashback what happened to Tyler's family or at least to his closest family member, his brother Mark, played by Jon Bernthal who worked with LaBeouf before in Fury (2014). Unfortunately, we never hear Mark speak. Mark's presence is brief but his relationship and fate are brilliantly shown without dialogue. The question becomes though why couldn't the same be done for Zak's past. Why no flashbacks for Zak?

Dakota Johnson (Bad Times at the El Royale and Fifty Shades of Grey) co-stars as Eleanor, a staff member at the retirement home where Zak was living. She's basically the social worker overseeing Zak. When Zak escapes the facility, she's tasked with finding him. She sets out to search the Outer Banks for him or try to track him to his wrestling school. She contrasts with Tyler in how she sees and has to treat Zak. Tyler is more a carpe diem kind of person and a person who bucks the rules. She's more a follower of the rules, but she seems sympathetic and compassionate to Zak's plight and open to changes and living more out of bounds.

What also sets this film apart from Of Mice and Men and Rain Man is the hopeful ending. It's arguably realistic but it stands in such contrast to the endings of the aforementioned films that it's almost like a fairy-tale ending. The point it lands is that disabled people are people and should be treated as such. Also, we shouldn't always underestimate those with a disability because they could surprise you.

Rated PG-13 for language, some violence and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.


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