There’s a lot to unpack with the new indie film, The Peanut Butter Falcon, which debuted at the South by Southwest festival this year, then opened early in August before having its wide release last weekend. Most of that stuff is on a more meta level than the actual film itself, which I’ll just say right upfront, was quite enjoyable.
So let’s explore that stuff first. A modern retelling of the Huckleberry Finn story, the movie is led by the charming performance of Zack Gottsagen as Zak, a young adult with Down Syndrome who dreams of being a professional wrestler like his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). The title of the film is his eventual wrestling persona. Living in a nursing home despite being only 22 years old, Zak has dozens of VHS tapes of the Redneck, including adverts for a wrestling training camp near his home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. For two years he’s tried to escape the home to attend the camp, only to be caught every time by his chief caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), and returned.
With the help of his roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak finally gets loose for good one night, and runs into the nearby fishing town, stowing away on a boat. Meanwhile, a troubled young fisherman named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) has been stealing crab traps because two rival fisherman have bought out his late brother’s license. After being threatened, he retaliates by burning their gear, then stealing the boat on which Zak happens to be hiding. The two agree to travel together, as Tyler is heading to Jupiter, FL, and Zak’s wrestling camp is on the way.
Dueling pursuits ensue, with Eleanor looking for Zak and the fisherman trying to track Tyler down and dispense redneck justice. Meanwhile, Zak and Tyler form a heartwarming bond, with Zak finding his first true friend in Tyler and Tyler seeing Zak as a chance for redemption, as taking care of Zak helps ease the pain of his own carelessness resulting in his brother’s death.
Gottsagen’s performance is not only competent, but superlative. It’s a strong, assertive, determined job, striking a blow for representation, but also just coming across as natural and organic. The film also serves as some career rehabilitation for LaBeouf and Johnson. Shia hasn’t really had a positive role in years, and this one helps repair his image as an artsy douchebag, and as for Dakota Johnson, it’s always nice to see her not pretending to be hypnotized by Jamie Dornan’s cock. Mind you, their romantic subplot is completely tacked on, and for the most part Johnson’s just there to be caring and cute, but despite all that, they do have some chemistry, and their work in this film is quite pleasant.
On a grander scheme, this film asks some fairly odd questions. For example, can something as stupid as pro wrestling have a positive impact? And before people start rage-tweeting me, I concede that it can be entertaining in a soap opera, reality TV trash kind of way, but it is not a sport, and the participants barely qualify as athletes (especially given the steroids and other drugs they have to take to remain relevant without adequate health insurance, causing many to die very young). It’s a nice touch to have Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley make extended cameos in the film, but that doesn’t justify the utterly retarded nature of the exercise.
Second, yes, I still use the “r-word” on occasion. Sue me. I grew up in an era where the word was still socially acceptable. As a kid I did volunteer work with the special needs children in my school (which I quit after one of them slammed my hand in a bathroom stall door but I wasn’t allowed to yell at him, as he didn’t know any better – didn’t stop my hand from nearly getting broken and hurting for a week), my sister used to be a pre-school teacher for kids with behavioral and developmental disabilities, and my mother used to be a payroll account for the ARC – the Association for Retarded Children, a name the organization still uses, so get over yourself. I don’t use the word often, but when I do, it’s only as a pejorative for the sound-minded, because when they act so incredibly stupid, I’m literally saying that I’d trust someone with Down Syndrome or some similar mental handicap over them. And yes, that applies to the entire concept of pro wrestling, which in a way made Gottsagen’s dream that much more endearing, because even with Down Syndrome, he was still more entertaining in the ring than Dwayne Johnson ever was.
I say all that to bring up the nuanced discussion this film presents about the word itself. During their journey, once she catches up to them, Tyler and Eleanor have plenty of lighthearted arguments about how much freedom and autonomy Zak should have. Should he be allowed to pursue his dreams, knowing they may come to nothing, or should he be protected as a ward of the state due to his disability, and shielded from things that might upset him? More importantly, when one uses euphemisms and other colorful language to describe his special needs like Eleanor does, is that just as bad as calling Zak retarded? Or is it even worse because you’re trying to spare his feelings rather than just coming out and saying the word itself, since that is still clearly what is meant by the sentiment?
It’s a profound topic that deserves to be explored even deeper, because language can be a powerful tool, a wonderful toy, or a dangerous weapon, depending on how it’s used. I concede that I’m old enough that I can’t be taught many new tricks, so I still use the word, though I do my best to limit my use of it to the sole context I explained above, because deep down, I never want to upset or offend anyone. This film has the courage to suggest that it may be just as offensive to pull the punch depending on the intent, which is a lot more of an intellectual debate than I’d have expected in a movie about a guy wanting to find a pro wrestler based on decades old videotapes who almost certainly can’t live up to his expectations.
Finally, as we approach awards season, Gottsagen’s performance poses an interesting conundrum. It’s a common box check for actors to get nominated if they portray a character with some sort of affliction, and mental handicap results in an almost automatic nod. For fairly recent examples, see Sling Blade, I Am Sam, and of course Forrest Gump, which earned Tom Hanks his second Oscar. So I’m curious to see how the Academy and other outlets will treat Gottsagen. We live in an age of representation, where anyone playing someone else not in their demographic is treated as offensive appropriation, whether it’s a white person playing an Asian or a straight actor playing a gay or trans character.
So now we have an actual actor with a mental handicap giving a layered, genuinely captivating performance, so how will the various circuits handle him? And of course, what happens if there’s a prestige performance later this year from an actor playing someone with a disorder? If they nominate that person and not Gottsagen, what does that say? On the other hand, would it be seen as a token nod if Gottsagen got nominated himself? I certainly hope not, because his performance would have been captivating regardless of his chromosome count.
In the end, though, I guess this is all window dressing. What really matters is that this is just a really good, simple, heartfelt film, a modern take on the original redneck road trip story. Zack Gottsagen gives a wonderful debut performance, and his supporters (literal and figurative) Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson take the first important step in redeeming their careers. There are some predictable plot beats, and sometimes things are just a bit too obvious to be believable, but it’s all in service to a nice story that deserves to be seen.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should more movies be made starring mentally handicapped actors? Why would Dakota Johnson be surprised and shocked to get handcuffed to something after kissing? It’s been half her career to date! Let me know!