It is no secret that mental illness and the portrayal of physical or intellectual handicaps on film require some specific attention. We could talk for ages about how horror uses this for scares, how comedy uses this for laughs and how drama uses this for the saccharine smugness of a privileged audience. The Peanut Butter Falcon, written and directed by Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz (a pair that described themselves as ‘river trash’ at the Q&A), is a tender example of how to get the portrayal pretty much pitch-perfect.
Zak (Zach Gottsagen) is a young man with Downs Syndrome who aspires to be the next big wrestling star, he lives in a retirement home and is looked after by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who cares for him very deeply – but Zak isn’t happy, he wants to be out chasing his dream. After managing to escape from his ‘prison’, he runs into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) on the run for a, uh, ‘crab related arson’ … and the Mark Twain-esque adventure kicks off.
Tyler and Zak’s bond is the true highlight of this misfit escapade and certainly has a unique way of making hearts melt. The bond is special because, for Tyler, Zak isn’t his partner in crime not because he feels sorry for his condition, but because he sees him as family. He treats him not as a pet, not as a child, but as a brother who he loves. There are many sequences of the two of them just, to put it simply, enjoying their adventure and enjoying each other’s company. Florida is their statewide playground to a tee.
While the film is essentially painted by numbers in its obstacle to obstacle approach to an authority avoidance journey, it neglects no time in dismissing our own internal biases as well. Eleanor’s character is great because she’s a lovely person with an attitude most people have, that Zak can’t have a proper family and needs to spend his life in her care. My favourite scene revolves around the use of the r-word and how it is one step ahead of patronisation – which is something most people do subconsciously. Most people are aware they lack privilege, and they don’t need to be informed by someone who has it, it’s a constant awareness for them.
I almost wanted more. The film doesn’t reach Taiki Waititi‘s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople standard we now have for tenderness balanced with the thrill of the chase. Impressively shot and smile-inducing sequences of joy need to be constructed smoothly and The Peanut Butter Falcon’s structure didn’t dare to entrance me with ups and downs if you think of the adventure genre as a roller-coaster, this was a funfair caterpillar ride.
There’s a lot of emotion waiting to be released from Tyler but the darker aspects of this man’s backstory weren’t thoroughly explored enough for it to happen to leave the third act feeling less of like a lung-busting relief and more of a gentile sounding ‘yay’ in positive resolution.
Still, the sun-baked fun and brotherly love of our two leads keep this lovingly afloat. Shia and Zach have great chemistry, and this is a tale that focuses less on taking risks and more on displaying a harmlessly proud two thumbs up which could just be your new favourite anti-ableist, river trailing partnership story of a wrestler with Downs Syndrome and his scruffy pal.