— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
To portray characters with disabilities and disorders accurately, actors since cinema’s dawn down to the present day have relied on makeup, visual effects as technology improved, and of course, their own talent. Some efforts were sympathetic, others were less so. Such were the lengths the film industry has gone to largely avoid the burden of casting, much less sustaining the careers of actors who already possessed such conditions. Such was the challenge to overcome when budding writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz struck a connection with one Zack Gottsagen, a young man with Down syndrome whom the two encountered at a Venice, CA acting camp for the disabled back in 2011. Eight years later, and Nilson & Schwartz’s feature debut and tailor-made Gottsagen vehicle The Peanut Butter Falcon emerges from the Carolina coastline with a genuine American rigor and elation, not to mention a Shia LaBeouf co-lead turn that matches Gottsagen step for step.
If Mr. Gottsagen hopes to forge a respectable acting career for himself, then he arguably has on hand one of the most impressive calling cards an actor of any condition similar to his has put forth. With writer-directors Nilson & Schwartz at his back, Gottsagen that showcases a handful of talents as Zak (sans the “c” in his real-life name): He knows how to shift his eyes. He knows when to become animated and when to restrain himself. He knows how to adjust his voice. Zak the character totally convinces you that Zack the actor is determined to prosper as a professional actor. Simply put, Gottsagen was born, trisomy 21 and all, to play Zak, and he deserves all the recognition the industry and the acting community is poised to offer him.
For most mainstream viewers, Shia LaBeouf somewhat fell off the radar after Transformers: Dark of the Moon. He managed to stay in some audiences’ minds in works like 2012’s Lawless and 2014’s Fury (an underrated war gem for the 2010s), though personal issues involving alcoholism led to legal trouble as well as a stint in rehab. Lately, LaBeouf has been rebounding via acclaimed performances in independent projects such as writer-director Andrea Arnold’s 2016 epic road drama American Honey.
In The Peanut Butter Falcon, LaBeouf’s Tyler serves as the determined co-fiddle to Gottsagen’s star-making turn. With Zak, Tyler regains the sense of purpose lost when, as revealed in flashbacks, he fell asleep at the wheel after a night of drinking with his now-deceased older brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, in his third recent tragic backstory appearance—see Wind River and Widows). Since then, Tyler’s grief and lack of a fishing license has turned him into a fish and crab thief, notably of those caught by Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf). In all fairness, those two the weak elements in Nilson & Schwartz’s debut feature: Hawkes’ role as Duncan doesn’t give him much to work with, with Yelawolf’s Ratboy less so, mostly just tagging along and providing a touch of backup. (Yelawolf reportedly beat LaBeouf in multiple rap battles witnessed by Gottsagen during breaks in production.) Nilson & Schwartz’s screenplay comes oh so close to a perfect poetic victory over Duncan and Ratboy via a certain supposedly impossible wrestling move that the reality comes off as hastily anticlimactic.
So yes, The Peanut Butter Falcon’s landing somewhat stumbles while the takeoff, a rather noticeable and ill-advised fade-in on Zak getting his nursery home lunch, would’ve worked better instead as a well-timed cut from black to a strategic close-up. Still, the journey more than makes up for those slight flaws. Watching Tyler’s initial callous and impatient attitude towards Zak grow into camaraderie and mutual mentorship is inspiring. It’s also quite moving when Zak judges Tyler to possess a “good guy” heart despite him arguably leaning more towards “bad guy”, while Tyler insists that Zak has a “good guy” heart despite Zak’s initial plan to become a “bad guy” wrestler due to his Down syndrome and lack of a loving family. And throughout their Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn-like and bluegrass-soundtracked adventure southward, Dakota Johnson’s amiable yet concerned caretaker Eleanor seeks a way in to remind our heroes of how society takes care of and views people like Zak—still humans with dignity and in need of daily assistance, yet decidedly not worth the burden to help pursue unrealistic ambitions.
Not all ambitions by the disabled are pipe dreams. Such is especially true when framed in a bona-fide, homegrown, American cinematic gem, not to mention a rousing debut for both its two writer-directors as well as its breakout star. I not only look forward to further features from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, but I also wish the best of luck to Zack Gottsagen and his acting career. May he have the opportunity to take on equally meaty roles, if not as a leading player, then at least as a dependable and long-lasting character actor, paving the way for others like him to do the same.
Parental Note: The Peanut Butter Falcon has been rated…
• PG-13 by the MPAA “for thematic content, language throughout, some violence, and smoking”;
• A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “brief partial nudity, mature themes, a few uses of profanity, at least one rough term, pervasive crude and some crass language, and a couple of obscene gestures”; and
• -2 (“Extreme Caution”) by Movieguide for being “heavy” on language and violence, and “light” on violence and nudity, with “some light Romantic elements.”
Extended Premise: Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, lives in a retirement home near the coast of North Carolina, where he’s cared for by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Aspiring to learn how to become a professional wrestler at a wrestling school run by his hero, the “Salt Water Redneck” (Thomas Haden Church), he runs away from the nursing home with the help of his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern). Zak stows away for the night in a fishing boat belonging to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a young fisherman who recently caused the death of his older brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, in flashbacks) by falling asleep driving after a night of drinking. In his grief and lacking a license, Tyler has resorted to stealing fish and crabs from Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf). Tyler burns their fishing equipment and escapes on his small boat, coming across Zak in the process. Bonded by their new status as fugitives, Tyler agrees to drop Zak off at the wrestling school, en route to his own goal of starting over as a fisherman in Florida.
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.