There is a prevalent perception that people with Down Syndrome in particular are inhibited from being able to attend college, live independently or work a professional job due to the physical challenges of their disability and the numerous medications that they require, but Zak significantly challenges these assumptions through his development over the course of his travels with Tyler.
By Nils Skudra
Recently I had the opportunity to see the film The Peanut Butter Falcon in theaters. While not a production about autism, this film articulates a motivational message for people with disabilities in general who wish to pursue their dreams and will not let their physical or neurological challenges be an obstacle to that achievement. I therefore decided to make The Peanut Butter Falcon the topic of this review.
Set in eastern North Carolina, the film revolves around Zak (portrayed by Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome living in a senior retirement facility after having been left there by his family since they did not want the responsibility of caring for him. Zak spends his time tuning into professional wrestling videos featuring Saltwater Redneck (portrayed by Thomas Haden Church), whom he idolizes and aspires to emulate as a professional wrestler. He makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape but is caught each time and confined to his room with Carl (played by Bruce Dern in a cameo appearance), an elderly resident who respects Zak’s love of wrestling and encourages him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
One night Carl finally aids Zak in escaping through the window of their room so that Zak may go off in search of Saltwater Redneck’s wrestling school and train with him. This prompts Zak’s specialist Eleanor (portrayed by Dakota Johnson), a well-meaning but overly protective caregiver who does not truly understand his aspirations, to pursue him along the North Carolina coast in the hope of finding him and bringing him back to the retirement home.
On the course of his trek, Zak encounters Tyler (portrayed by Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman and thief who is on the run himself after destroying $12,000 worth of equipment following a confrontation with crabbers whose crabs he had stolen and unsuccessfully tried to sell. Initially, Tyler wants nothing to do with Zak, considering him a hindrance to his own escape plans, and intends to part ways with Zak. However, after witnessing the bullying of Zak by other kids who refer to him as a “retard” and goad him into jumping off a lifeguard tower in spite of Zak’s inability to swim, Tyler intervenes and decides to let Zak accompany him. However, Tyler personifies the image of an archetypal redneck in that he initially shows no understanding of or concern for Zak’s disability – in a poignant moment of dialogue, Zak assertively tells Tyler, “I am a Down syndrome person,” to which Tyler, probably ignorant of what that diagnosis entails, simply responds, “I don’t care.”
As Zak and Tyler’s coastal journey progresses, Tyler gradually begins to develop empathy and compassion for Zak, recognizing his strengths as an individual and the passion with which he pursues his goal. A close friendship develops between them, with Tyler teaching Zak important life skills such as swimming and shooting – the latter begins on a comedic note when Zak is thrown back several feet by the gun blast during his first attempt, but he soon becomes adept at target practice. More importantly, Tyler encourages Zak to become more self-confident, telling him that what’s in his heart is what truly matters and not what people say about him as a person with Down syndrome.
This represents a profound step in Tyler’s character development and in the message of the film since it sets him apart from other neurotypical individuals in Zak’s world who see his condition as a permanent obstacle to his ability to successfully lead an independent life in mainstream society. There is a prevalent perception that people with Down syndrome in particular are inhibited from being able to attend college, live independently or work a professional job due to the physical challenges of their disability and the numerous medications that they require, but Zak significantly challenges these assumptions through his development over the course of his travels with Tyler.
The plot takes on the style of a Mark Twain story, reminiscent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in that Zak and Tyler encounter a variety of eccentric characters on their journey, including a blind religious man who almost shoots them upon first encountering the pair but then baptizes Zak and provides them with a raft, after which they spend their time sailing on the river toward Florida. Zak takes the title of “Peanut Butter Falcon” for himself as a professional wrestler’s stage name, reflecting both his love of peanut butter (the one food item that the pair could afford on their trek) and his new self-confidence.
Eleanor eventually catches up with them and tries to convince Zak to return to the retirement home, but after an argument with Tyler (during which Zak throws her car keys in the ocean) she agrees to accompany them to the wrestling school on the condition that Zak return to the home afterward. As they sail on the Outer Banks, Tyler and Eleanor clash over Zak’s new level of independence and the treatment that he requires as an individual with Down syndrome, with Tyler asserting that while Eleanor may never call Zak a “retard,” she makes him feel retarded by giving him medications for physical issues he has learned to deal with on his own and by keeping him in a retirement facility.
This dialogue offers a powerful insight into the mindset of individuals with Down syndrome or other neurological diagnoses (including autism) since they can feel inhibited even by well-meaning neurotypical people who treat their disability as something requiring specialized care rather than a condition that they can work with in order to function independently, which Zak has acquired greater confidence in and which Eleanor gradually comes to recognize as the journey progresses to its ultimate conclusion.
The Peanut Butter Falcon features stellar performances by its lead actors and beautiful geographic scenery, and it articulates an uplifting message about the ability of Down syndrome individuals to thrive independently and pursue their dreams, as well as the prospects for changing the outlook of neurotypical individuals who are either ignorant or misguided in their understanding of the condition.
The fact that Zack Gottsagen has Down syndrome himself adds even greater power to the themes of this film since it marks an important step in film representation of protagonists with disabilities by enabling actors with disabilities to represent themselves rather than cast neurotypical actors in those roles. Hopefully this will set a precedent for future disability-themed film productions which will provide opportunities for more actors from the disability community to personally represent their community on screen and thereby add greater diversity to film casting.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.