The Peanut Butter Falcon

This is a great feel-good movie for our times. It is also a reminder that those with disabilities should not be side-lined and forgotten. Hats off to the directors and screenwriters Tyler Nilsen and Michael Schwartz who handpicked Zack Gottsagen from an acting camp, wrote the movie around him and made him into an unlikely star.

Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome (as in real life) who for reasons of expediency has been incarcerated in an old people’s home, where he is treated as ‘retard’, except by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a young widow who is his carer. He is frustrated by his surroundings and, obsessed by an old video of Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school, is determined to escape and join up. With the help of his buddy, an instantly recognisable and twinkly Bruce Dern, he makes off into the night in nothing but his underpants.

As day breaks and, scared by a fight on the fishing dock where he has ended up, Zak hides under a tarp on a boat. Before he knows it, the boat has taken off and he is on the run with Tyler (Shia LeBoeuf) a petty criminal crab fisherman, down on his luck, and suffering from great guilt over his brother’s death.

They strike up a bond. Tyler, despite being chased by the thugs who were beating him up, sees something in Zak (maybe as a replacement for his brother) and agrees to help him try and reach Salt Water Redneck to fulfil his dreams.

Our two fugitives are doubly pursued: the fishermen don’t give up easily and Eleanor has been dispatched by the authorities to bring him home and consign him to a young offenders’ institution. Their odyssey takes them on a journey where they fish, build a raft, dodge danger, laugh a lot, get drunk, find God, love and receive kindness. It’s an epic in a microcosm but full of compassion and humour.

Filmed in the spectacular North Carolina Outer Banks, with its wide-open vistas, sinister reeds and marshes, the film evokes Huck Finn and that great river movie, Mud, with Matthew McConaughey. LaBoeuf is a bit of a bad boy in real life and this film is well out of his normal genre, Transformersand playing John McEnroe being among his more renowned parts.  Sentimentality is not something you would normally associate with the name LaBoeuf. Here he is a revelation – he’s no stranger to playing the ne’er-do-well but being a dude with a soft centre is new, and he pulls it off admirably. There is a real connection between him and Zak which could be schmaltzy but somehow avoids being corny or trite through a shared gritty determination that shines through their respective characters. 

Zack Gottsagen is a natural and some of the dialogue is unscripted – as in his rule number one, to ‘party’. His joie de vivre during the film, the seeming effortlessness with which he plays his role, his empathy and his unconditional loyalty to those who are kind to him provide a moving testimony to stupidity of society’s constant overlooking of people with disability. Here we have ample proof that a Down’s Syndrome man can steal the show.

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