Joyous and Uplifting
Featuring a special needs character in a film is always a risky proposition that has the potential to cross that fine line between exploitation and exposition. Done incorrectly, the film might end up a syrupy mess with a pathetic character begging for pity. On the other hand, casting a non-special needs actor in the role is, well, just wrong, especially in our ever more inclusive world. Looking at you, Forrest Gump. However, when handled correctly, a characterís disability becomes secondary to the plot and anything else the film has to say.
This is certainly the case with The Peanut Butter Falcon, in which a special needs actor plays a special needs character, yet throughout the course of the tale, we totally forget that either has a disability. The film stars Zack Gottsagen who has Down Syndrome. And though he portrays a character with the genetic disorder in the film, Gottsagen celebrates his uniqueness, while always maintaining a realistic perception of his challenges. And in his debut feature, heís just so perfect.
The film is written and directed by Tyler Wilson and Michael Schwartz who also make their feature film debuts with a sweet little modern-day fable about a couple of strangers who make their way down isolated waterways and overgrown back roads while eventually happening upon an unexpected path that changes both their lives forever. Infused with loads of humor and plenty of heart, The Peanut Butter Falcon is as joyous and uplifting as a film can be.
Gottsagen is Zak, who we first meet in an assisted living center. We learn that he was abandoned by his birth parents and now, as a ward of the state, has been ordered to live there. But Zak has dreams. And when the opportunity finally presents itself, he busts out of the care facility and hightails it down the Carolina coast towards Florida, where he hopes to attend the wrestling school of his hero and WWF superstar, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways).
But Zakís escape plan quickly fizzles out when he falls asleep in an abandoned fishing boat that belongs to hardscrabble country boy Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, American Honey) whose path towards the future is equally ill researched. Reluctantly, Tyler accepts Zak and the two set out for Florida together. But their trip wonít be an easy one. Seems Tyler is running from a couple of local crabbers (John Hawkes and Yelawolf) whose traps he destroyed, while Zak is avoiding his social worker named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who hopes to return him to his residence.
It takes a while, but the bristly Tyler eventually warms up to Zakís adventurous nature and innocent spirit. It is this extraordinary bond the two wayward travelers forge that forms the backbone of this heartwarming tale worthy of Mark Twain. It isnít long until Eleanor eventually catches up to the boys, but her mission to return with Zak is put aside when she experiences the friendship the two have formed.
Though often telegraphed and a bit too on the nose, the themes and emotions at play in The Peanut Butter Falcon are genuine and always feel earned. Telling this kind of story comes with a high degree of difficulty as nothing really happens and there isnít all that much going on. It is really just a simple little lighthearted road movie of sorts that lazily drifts from point A to Z in the most delightful of ways. But it is the chemistry shared between the three leads that ultimately elevates this slice of timeless Americana. We see Zak and Tyler give each other their special handshake while Tyler and Eleanor nurse their budding romance.
Itís a shame that The Peanut Butter Falcon is unlikely to get a wide theatrical release. In our current climate of isolation and divisiveness, itís nice to have a story that fills its sails with the winds of friendship, inclusion, and decent people who come to each otherís aid in times of need. This is exactly the kind of movie we need right now. Sadly, those who need to see it most, likely wonít.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated ďPG-13Ē by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.