‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ review
By Tyran Batten, Contributor
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a film about a relentless commitment to an impossible dream.
The film stars Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who has been unfortunately placed in a retirement home after his family abandoned him. Currently living with his elderly roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), he spends his days watching his “Saltwater Redneck” VHS tapes and planning his escape. Zak, being 22 years old, is entirely aware that he does not belong there. He explains to Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who has been taking care of him, that “Carl is old,” while Zak is “not old.” Carl decides to help him escape so that he can pursue his dream of meeting the Saltwater Redneck and becoming a professional wrestler. Before his escape, Zak and Carl reaffirm their friendship. Carl assures Zak that friendships go deeper than family since “friends are the family you choose.” Zak then invites Carl to his birthday party.
Side Note: If you’ve already been sold on the idea of a young man with Down syndrome escaping his drab life to become a professional wrestler, then I suggest you drop this and go watch the film before reading on. I promise that if this premise intrigues you, you will be delighted by Zak’s journey. There are spoilers for the rest of the film from here on out.
After Zak’s escape he soon meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local fisherman who has been in trouble for stealing crabs, and for burning down $12,000 dollars worth of fishing equipment from rival crabbers. Tyler is hesitant to let Zak come with him but changes his mind when he learns that they share a bond as two men running from the law. Tyler becomes supportive of Zak’s dream and promises to help him find the Saltwater Redneck and become a professional wrestler.
This friendship drives the story for the rest of the film. The love they share is so earnest, brotherly, and fun. You can’t help but smile throughout this film as these two bond due to the hijinks they find themselves in. In one moment, we see Zak assure Tyler that he truly considers him family, causing Tyler to cry while he remembers the family he’s lost. This emotional scene crescendos into a playful slap fight between the two as they laugh through the tears. It’s scenes like these that feel so genuine. The brotherly friendship they share goes deep and cuts to the core of what it is to have a sibling with Down syndrome.
The fact that Zak has Down syndrome is not ignored in the film. It is acknowledged in every encounter Zak has. The more difficult scenes in the film involve Zak being mistreated and made fun of because he is “retarded,” while Tyler assures him that he is not. Tyler is exemplary in his honesty to Zak. As Zak reminisces to Tyler about the words he’s been called and the lies he’s been given, Tyler is straight with him. He explains to Zak that there are some things that he simply won’t be able to do like to become an Olympic athlete, or become a world chess champion, but he assures Zak that he shouldn’t limit himself. Tyler recognizes, as any good friend of a Down syndrome person does, that they are capable of so many great things and that the limits of what they can do will only be squandered by what they are told they can’t do.
Tyler’s brotherly love serves as a contrast for the love Eleanor has for Zak. She has been his caretaker for as long as he had been in the retirement home. She wanted what’s best for him even though this led her to treat him like a child. In a pivotal moment of the film, Tyler confronts Eleanor with the way she treats Zak. He explains to her that although she would never call him retarded, she most certainly is treating him like he is. Zak is 22 years old, yet Eleanor still treats him like she’s his mother and as if he can’t do anything for himself. She’s limiting what Zak is capable of by constantly mothering him and making sure he’s ok and acts as almost an inverse of the bullies that make fun of Zak. It’s a hindrance to Zak’s abilities, even if it is coming from a place of love and care. This film recognizes both sides of the coin and reminds viewers to treat everyone as they are: people.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Zak and what he means to this story. His determination in the face of terrible odds is inspiring. Zak truly is the heart of the film with his selflessness, his humor and his purity. When Zak is told that he needs to say something mean, the meanest thing he can think of is telling them that they’re “not invited to [his] birthday party.” His dream of becoming a wrestler is always a reality to him. Even when the chances seem impossible, Zak never lets go of his dream. You can’t help but root for him the entire way and hope for him to achieve his goals. Both his goals of becoming a professional wrestler, and of finding a family.
It would be foolish to pretend that everyone with Down syndrome goes through the same struggles, has the same dreams, or acts the same way. They are as diverse as any two people can be from one another. However, the hand they were dealt shares some of the same cards and I can see a lot of things in Zak that remind me of my own sister. Like Zak, she is extremely talkative and desires to be heard, despite her difficulties in communication. She has a determination to do things that some might perceive as beyond her abilities (and the drive to accomplish them). She even has had a similar obsession with a nebulous birthday party. Thankfully, she is surrounded by a family that loves her and will go to the farthest lengths to help her achieve her goals. A family that I hope looks a lot like the family Zak eventually finds by the end of the film.
The film ends in a way that feels quiet and victorious, contrasted with a complicatedly loud climax. Zak’s smile permeates the scene as he’s surrounded by the friends that worked hard to help him achieve his dreams. We’re unsure of what’s next but it is unnecessary for us to know. What we do know is that Zak has a family now—something he’s never had before—and they’ll be with him on his next adventure. All we know is that they’re invited to Zak’s next birthday party, and hopefully for every birthday party after that.