Remember when movies came out in theaters? That was just last year, by the way. During that time, I went to the movies every weekend, the goal being to see a new release and write about it. When COVID-19 shut down cinemas, I expanded my horizons and began reviewing any and all films. Have to do something to justify continuing the blog, right? Somehow, though, when I was in my rhythm last year, I got to see The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) weeks after its release date, meaning I did not get to write about it. Such a shame, too. At the time, my desire was to stay relevant by discussing films after their release weekend. The Peanut Butter Falcon and the timing of my viewing of it did not match that criteria. I am here today to correct that mistake.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens with Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome (both in the movie and real life) who is living in a retirement home. How did such a person end up in such a place? As it is revealed later, his family felt like they could not care for him any more so they turned over custody of him to the state. Undeterred by his painful past, Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. In order to do so, he feels he must escape from the facility he is in, and plans a diversion with Rosemary (Ann Owens), giving the elderly women his chocolate pudding in exchange for her feigning choking. With the staff thus diverted, Zak bolts for the door but is tackled before he could get too far outside. The home’s social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), has a heartfelt conversation with Zak about his apparent frequent attempts to breakout, and tells him he is going to be labeled a flight risk. Regardless, Zak still desires to meet his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), who he believes will teach him the skills needed to be a professional wrestler. Later that same night, Zak’s roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), helps to pry apart the bars on the windows so Zak can slip through and attempt to reach the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling camp. Along the way, he hides in the boat of local crab fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf). Tyler is on the run too, having burned the crab pots of other fishermen, namely Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), because they gave him a hard time for fishing on their pots. When Tyler discovers Zak, initially he tries to leave him behind. What pulls him back is a sense of responsibility. Throughout, we see flashbacks of Tyler’s close relationship with his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), and it is suggested that Tyler was behind the wheel with Mark when their car crashed and Mark died. Thus Tyler takes Zak under his wing. Along the way, Zak asks Tyler to train him to become a wrestler and to take him to the Salt Water Redneck’s school, and a genuine friendship develops between the two. Eventually they are also joined by Eleanor, who had been out looking for Zak to bring him back to facility. Though she remains determined to do so even after she finds Zak (and he throws her car keys into the ocean), she begins to see things differently particularly when the facility tells her that when he gets back he is being transferred to a place where they keep criminals. This revelation comes right as they all finally make it to the Salt Water Redneck’s camp. Initially the aged wrestler balks, and clearly the video tape that Zak obsessed over for so long had been dated, but eventually he gives in and spends a day teaching Zak. This leads to Zak getting to have a “bonafide” (it is some guy’s back yard, but there is a wrestling ring and an audience) match with Sam (Jake “The Snake” Roberts, truly). Tyler is ringside cheering Zak “The Peanut Butter Falcon” on, but that is also when Duncan catches up to Tyler and bashes him on the head with a tire iron. Tyler survives, and the film suggests that it is because Zak gives him all his birthday wishes. And Zak, Eleanor, and Tyler ride off into the Florida sunset together.
Okay, so what is The Peanut Butter Falcon? If you think comedy because you have a Down Syndrome person wanting to be a wrestler, and willing to run around in his underwear to do so, you would be sadly mistaken. If you think it is an action film because of the boat chases and Tyler nearly having his brains knocked out, you would also be sadly mistaken. Neither should you get overly concerned with the fact that it stars somebody with what had long been called a “disability.” There are a couple really powerful moments in the film where Tyler is explaining the way things are to Zak. The first is not a speech about the things Zak is unable to do, though there is a list of activities like dunking a basketball that Zak will never do. Instead, Tyler encourages Zak to focus on what he can do, and there is no reason why he cannot wrestle given Zak’s demonstrable strength. This leads into the other moment where Tyler accuses Eleanor of calling Zak “retarded.” Eleanor is, of course, taken aback and cites her track record as a worker in the home as evidence that she does not feel that way. Yet Tyler’s point is that whenever Zak is talked to as somebody other than a twenty-something year old man who wants to be a wrestler that is essentially what they are doing, calling him a “retard.” While Eleanor stills sees this as unfair, it causes her to reassess how she views Zak. All the time she had been looking for him after his escape as somebody alone who was incapable of fending for himself. In light of this exchange with Tyler, and seeing Zak blossom in their relationship, Zak goes from being a “boy” to a “wild man.” It is a subtle change, but it makes the film a coming of age story.
It would also be a mistake to view The Peanut Butter Falcon as a story where there is a sort of teacher/student relationship between Tyler and Zak. Of course, Tyler realizes that Zak has certain limitations. Instead, Tyler learns that placing further limits on Zak is virtually useless, and by focusing on the training and supporting Zak’s dreams, Tyler gains a new brother. This is something that Shia LaBeouf took away from the filming, and he indicates this in interviews. Before meeting Zak, Tyler intended to travel to Florida alone to start a new fishing business. It is funny the people that God brings into our lives, and how He uses them to call us to a different purpose. Early on in their travels, Zak asks Tyler if he is a good guy or a bad guy. At first, Tyler says he does not know, but Zak declares he is a good guy. The one thing that Tyler is missing to complete his transformation into a heroic figure is forgiveness. At one point, while in search of a faster means of travel, they come across the junk yard of Blind Jasper John (Wayne Dehart). He agrees to give them what they need in exchange for them being baptized. Only after doing so, and with a little encouragement from Zak, does Tyler finally forgive himself for Mark’s death. Regardless of the quasi-religious ceremony, God offers forgiveness to all of us, and claiming it can go a long way towards determining your character.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I saw The Peanut Butter Falcon about a year ago, but watched it two nights in a row recently. It is that good. There is some cursing in it, and the determination of Duncan and Ratboy to get even with Tyler can be genuinely scary. But it is rated PG-13, and it is a manageable movie for younger audiences. Of note, the film actually is semi-autobiographical in terms of Zack Gottsagen’s life, as his dream was to star in a movie. He certainly got a great one for his first starring role, and his performance is excellent. I will not say “despite his limitations” because those are largely illusory and the product of society telling people like him what they can and cannot do. I, too, will never be able to dunk a basketball (came somewhat close, though), so does that mean I have a “disability?” Of course not. Instead, watch it for a story about what you can be, and all the trials and tribulations that can come with pursuing your dreams. It is truly one of the best movies I have ever seen.
If you are interested in seeing more about Zack Gottsagen and the friendship that developed between the three stars while filming The Peanut Butter Falcon, watch the following clip.