by Alicia Robbins
A man with Down syndrome hands a drawing to an elderly lady in a nursing home. The drawing depicts the man trading his pudding in exchange for the lady’s help in his escape from the nursing home where he, too, is a resident. She agrees, takes the pudding, and pretends to choke on it so that the man, Zak, can bolt out the front door to freedom. A few seconds after Zak runs out of the building, a burly security guard tackles him from the side and the screen cuts black to the opening credits of the film “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
This shocking yet funny introduction of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” invites the audience to laugh and delight in the antics of the main character of the film, Zak, played by a 34-year-old newcomer actor with Down syndrome, Zack Gottsagen.
“I am young. Carl is old. I don’t know why I’m here.”
Zak has no family in “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and is forced to live in a nursing home in North Carolina. A young woman who works at the nursing home named Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson, cares for Zak. Zak passes his days watching videos of a famous wrestler called the Salt Water Redneck. The Salt Water Redneck invites his viewers to come on down to attend his wrestling school in Aidan, North Carolina. Attending this wrestling school is Zak’s dream and the motivation behind his attempts to escape from the nursing home. Eventually, with the help of his aged roommate Carl, Zak escapes the nursing home in the dead of the night wearing only a pair of tighty-whities.
Zak wanders the North Carolina rural coast until he meets fisherman Tyler, played by Shia LaBeouf. Tyler is on the run from the law and some fishing enemies. He agrees to accompany Zak to the wrestling school in Aidan on his way to Florida. As Tyler and Zak journey, Eleanor searches for Zak so that she can bring him back to the nursing home. All three characters eventually meet up and travel to Aidan to find the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school.
According to Indiewire.com, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” led last weekend as the best of the week’s new releases. The Regal Manor Twin, the theater in Charlotte where I saw the film on Saturday, August 10, 2019, was packed with a wide range of viewers. Lindsy Maners of Charlotte has a 10-year-old son named Branson with Down syndrome. Maners saw “The Peanut Butter Falcon” on opening night, Friday. Maners spoke on the film’s growing popularity: “So many people want to see a movie that lets someone with Down syndrome be the hero. It’s amazing as a parent that people with no connection to Down syndrome want to see the movie.”
Although “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and its star, Gottsagen, have garnered attention and popularity across the nation, it was against the odds that the film was even made. Gottsagen’s dream since he was a child was to be an actor. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Zack studied acting at the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. Additionally, he taught acting and dance at a local Jewish community center and worked as an usher at Alco Boynton Cinema. The paper also reported that the writers and directors of “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, met Zak at Zeno Mountain Farm in Los Angeles where they were working as volunteers. Zeno Mountain Farm is a camp where people with and without disabilities work to create short films. Nilson told the paper: “We saw Zack give a performance in a short film that was really, really fantastic.”
According to the paper, although Nilson and Schwartz were on a budget and living in a tent, they wrote “The Peanut Butter Falcon” around Zack as the main character. No one they sent the script to would read it. Eventually, they made a short trailer and sent it around. Shia LeBeouf saw the trailer, read the script, and asked to be in the film.
Both the directors and the actors recognized Zack’s talent, and it shows in every interview they give. Melissa Buczek, whose 3-year-old son William has Down syndrome, attended a Q&A with directors Nilson and Schwartz after seeing the film last week. “One of the best parts of hearing the directors for me was how highly they respected Zack and how seriously they took his acting,” said Buczek, who is the Site Coordinator for Gigi’s Playhouse Charlotte, a new achievement center that offers free recreational, educational and therapeutic activities for people with Down syndrome. “He was a colleague, a friend, and a professional, and oh yeah he just happened to have Down syndrome, but who cares. They gave Zach the privileges and respect that most actors only dream of. This is what I hope and pray for all of my friends who rock an extra chromosome.”
“When people say retard, they’re talking about all he can’t do.”
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” shows a full, fleshed-out portrayal of an adult with Down syndrome. Lindsy Maners liked how the film never portrayed Zak as needy. The film showcased Zak’s abilities rather than his limitations. Maners said that “Showing Zak slowly learning things that he at first couldn’t do shows that you can’t limit someone’s potential.” Zak was able to swim after Tyler taught him. Tyler taught Zak how to shoot a gun and Zak utilized that skill when villains came after Tyler in the night. Maners particularly liked this moment because when Zak tried to protect Tyler, Tyler did not take the gun away. He believed in Zak and trusted him to defend him.
Another important moment in the film demonstrative of Tyler’s belief in Zak’s skills happens when Eleanor catches up with the two men. All three are floating on a makeshift raft and Eleanor and Tyler have an important conversation as Zak practices holding his breath underwater. Eleanor had been overly concerned with Zak, asking about his blood sugar and babying him in comparison to how Tyler treated Zak. Tyler says to Eleanor: “When people say retard, they’re talking about all he can’t do.” The film is interspersed with sharp jabs of slurs like “retard” and “retarded,” but never from the mouth of Eleanor. Yet, as Maners said, “It doesn’t matter what you say about someone, it matters how you treat them, because actions can say as much or more than words.” In coddling Zak, Eleanor is emphasizing all that he cannot do, a point the film is trying to highlight.
“We can be a family.”
The film also illustrates the power of love and loving without judgment. Once Tyler opened up to Zak and as Maners said, “recognized his pure soul” they became great friends.
JT Rea, 29, has Down syndrome and was in the audience at the Regal Manor in Charlotte last week to see the movie. (He is pictured holding the poster below. His mother, Sherri, and brother, McClendon, are on the far right with director, Nelson on the far left and director Schwartz wearing the ball cap. Melissa Buczek is second from the right. Also pictured are Ernie Hoag, Down Syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte board member, and wife, Robin.) Asked what he liked about the character Zak, he replied: “What’s not to like? He’s smart and clever, especially when he escapes the nursing home and also throwing his nursing friend’s car keys in the ocean. That was funny. Just like me, he knows what he likes and wants.” With Zak’s humor, intelligence, and kindness he changes the hard and tough Tyler for the better. Rea also said that when Tyler and Zak become friends, Tyler “sees that it doesn’t matter if somebody has Down syndrome, he is just a regular person.” Rea hits it on the nose there. All people have different abilities and skills that can enhance both their own life and the lives of others. As Maners said, “Zak doesn’t wait to love.” Maners sees this same loving quality in her 10-year-old son, Branson, “everyone is his new best friend.” Zak loves Tyler without judgment of his past mistakes.
The love that Zak gives Tyler in the film is a shadow of the love that Zack Gottsagen brought to Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf gave an outstanding performance onscreen, indicative of his true relationship with Gottsagen. According to the Sun-Sentinel, LaBeouf was arrested in 2017 while they were shooting “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and charged with obstruction, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. When Gottsagen heard about LaBeouf’s arrest, he confronted LaBeouf at a cast party. LaBeouf later said, “To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life. Zack can’t not shoot straight, and bless him for it, ’cause in that moment, I needed a straight shooter who I couldn’t argue with.”
“I wanna be a hero.”
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a Mark Twain story revived anew by the main character of Zak and his capacity to love without judgment. The hero’s journey archetype has been utilized in countless films and stories starting from the time of Homer’s great epic the Odyssey. Yet, the hero’s journey has never been done with a hero like Zak. People with Down syndrome deserve to have a hero’s journey and ending too. Maners said that the movie “shows people that someone within a nursing home with Down syndrome has potential, something to offer the world, and a whole life to live.”
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” was released in select theaters on August 9. It will be playing until August 22 at the Regal Manor Twin in Charlotte, is playing now at AMC Concord Mills 24 in Concord and will begin playing on August 23 at the Regal Birkdale STM 16 and RPX in Huntersville. Check your local theatre listings to see when “The Peanut Butter Falcon” plays near you.
Alicia Robbins is a 2nd year student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. She spent this summer at home, where she is the neighbor of a boy with Down syndrome.
DSA of Greater Charlotte is offering to DSA of Greater Charlotte families and friends two FREE screenings of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” THIS SATURDAY, August 24, 2019, 11:30am- 1:30pm, at two locations.
Space is limited. RSVP now by clicking on location link below: