Writers and Directors: Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The feel-good film of this year’s London Film Festival? Probably. This modern buddy movie has thrills and laughs, and features great performances from its two leads, Shia LaBoeuf and Zack Gottsagen. It’s wholesome fun.
Gottsagen is a Down syndrome person, and when friends Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilsen realised that the budding actor would find it hard finding roles in the movies they decided to write a film for him. That film became The Peanut Butter Falcon, the tale of a Down syndrome man who wants to escape the care home in which he’s imprisoned to become an international pro wrestler.
With a family unable to look after him, Zak (Gottsagen) lives in an old people’s home despite the fact that he is only 22. He whiles away the days watching old videos of his wrestling hero, the Salt Water Redneck and planning his means of escape. He knows that Salt Water has a wrestling school somewhere in North Carolina and once he’s slipped out of the iron bars fixed over his window, that’s where he’s headed.
Fisherman Tyler (LaBeouf) is also on the run, in his case from three redneck thugs who want their revenge after he set fire to their tackle and crab nets. During a boat chase through the waterways of North Carolina, Tyler realises that he has a stowaway on board; Zak, clad in only his underwear. They strike up an unlikely friendship and Tyler decides to help Zak find Salt Water’s wrestling school.
Refreshingly, there is no discussion of Down syndrome; instead, it’s merely a facet of who Zak is. Tyler doesn’t treat him as a child or as a patient, a very different approach from the management of the nursing home, including Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who is tasked to go and find him. It’s Tyler who helps Zak create his wrestling alter ego, The Peanut Butter Falcon of the title; Eleanor wants to take him back to the home. Well-meaning she may be, but she infantilises Zak, wanting to coddle him, when really she should be helping him explore what the world has to offer.
And the world – well, the swamps and lakes of North Carolina – looks wonderful, clear with primary colours, vibrant and lush, as they head further south towards Florida. Some have called this a modern-day Mark Twain, but in fact, as they meet up with other people who are also isolated from society, it’s more like The Wizard of Oz with Tyler and Zak drawing ever closer to their own Emerald City.
The comedy – and some of it pleasingly slapstick – helps carry the film along, and patches up the problems en route, including the predictable relationship between Tyler and Eleanor, and the way she is wrong about everything. Johnson’s character is so thinly drawn that perhaps the film would have worked better without the love interest, focussing solely on the relationship between the two men. It’s a thankless role for Johnson, and Eleanor is, quite literally at one point, locked out of the action.
But this is Gottsagen’s film, and it’s a remarkable debut for him. Let’s hope that The Peanut Butter Falcon sets a precedent, and that we see all kinds of people in our films in the future. It’s surprising it’s taken so long, but this film is definitely sequel friendly.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October