What 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' Means for Down Syndrome Representation

17 Oct 2019 BY Steven Ryder in Film Features

4 mins
The Peanut Butter Falcon
The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Peanut Butter Falcon is an odd name for a film but a good place to start when describing this heart-warming indie dramedy starring the trio of Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and newcomer Zack Gottsagen (who also plays a character called Zak in the film). The title refers to the name that Zak chooses to call himself as he makes his way to a North Carolina wrestling school ran by his favourite professional wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck. Teaming up with a grieving crab fisherman named Tyler, the two new friends traverse the stunning landscape of rural North Carolina, encouraging each other to grow with their duelling outlooks on ambitions, passions and life in general.

But what makes this story a little different, and very worth telling, is that Zack Gottsagen, and the character he plays, has Down Syndrome (sometimes referred to as Down's Syndrome), a genetic condition that results in stunted growth, slower learning capabilities and pronounced facial features. This is not, of course, the first film to put somebody with this specific condition at the centre of a narrative. The 2016 British film ‘My Feral Heart' follows a young man with Down Syndrome who is moved into a care home following the death of his mother and is a great example of a compassionate and authentic story about purpose and independence. However, as empathetic and vital as My Feral Heart is, The Peanut Butter Falcon seems to be bringing this subject into the mainstream, evident through its recent box-office success in America.

This could be explained by The Peanut Butter Falcon's light touch and audience-friendly narrative. Zak, our lead, escapes from the retirement home where he is kept under tight supervision by his well-intentioned carer Eleanor and decides to take control of his life. This detail of Zak spending his adolescence and young adulthood in a retirement home is an important one and clearly lays out the film's themes of independence and personal empowerment, suggesting that society has already given up on Zak's future and all his decisions are now being made for him.

The story of how the film came to be is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met Gottsagen at a camp for people with and without disabilities. Here he told them that he wanted to become a movie star so they went out to write a script where he could play a lead role. The two directors had to spend a long time convincing studio executives to cast Gottsagen after repeatedly being told they wanted to put an able-bodied star in the role instead of an actor who could bring their own experience to the character. Eventually, they succeeded.

It should be noted that Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon could not just be played by any actor with Down Syndrome. Gottsagen brings a multitude of skills to the screen including impeccable comic timing, some of which was ad-libbed by Gottsagen on set. He clearly has a very concrete idea of this character in mind, focusing on Zak's unique, optimistic world view coupled with his frustrations at not being able to overcome all his limitations. Yet Zak never gives up. The penultimate, extended scene of the film in which Zak finds himself in a wrestling ring for the first time is an excellent example of physical comedy and character development that feels unique and fresh from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective rather than solely a socially conscious one.

The chemistry he shares with Shia LeBeouf also translated off screen as well. Noted for his less-than-private outbursts and manic lifestyle, LeBeouf has credited Gottsagen with saving his life, saying "I wasn't in love with [making films] no more when I met him. It's like going on a roller coaster for the first time, he turned my spark back on." This is the theme of the film summed up perfectly through real-life experience, as Zak helps Tyler adjust to his new life after losing his older brother, the one person who looked after and cared for him.

This is a story that may seem to be, on the surface, just another inspirational film about a disabled person but it becomes something much more than that, with some describing the film as a modern retelling of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, one of America's most lasting pieces of literature. It is being considered a watershed moment in representation and the hope is that it will place Gottsagen into the mainstream. It is also exceptionally funny and contains equally as impressive performances from LeBeouf and Johnson, who share a sizzling romantic chemistry on screen. At its heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a story about how important independence is for all of us, no matter what cards we might have been dealt.

The Peanut Butter Falcon will be released in selected cinemas on 18 October. To see where this film is playing near you please visit FindAnyFilm.

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Steven Ryder, Curation Officer

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

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