“Representation” is a hot topic in the world of film and television these days. From women to people of color to the LGBTQ+ community, the mass entertainment media have evolved, however grudgingly, to a point where more and more protagonists who are not white straight European-descended males are having their stories told. There are still all too many instances of famous white European-descended actors being cast instead of equally talented, more ethnically appropriate ones to play nonwhite characters; but at least now, when it happens, someone points it out and there’s some dialogue. The process has been glacial, but opportunities are gradually broadening and what we see onscreen is becoming more diverse. Hallelujah.
The last frontier in this regard, it seems, is characters with disabilities. There are a few exceptions, such as a vigorous presence of deaf actors portraying deaf characters since Marlee Matlin’s pioneering, Oscar-winning lead performance in Children of a Lesser God (1986), and of course a long history in Hollywood of roles (not always dignified ones) for actors with dwarfism. But when it comes to a story where the lead character is confined to a wheelchair, blind or mentally ill or somewhere on the autism spectrum – well, that’s still seen as a welcome challenge for a non-disabled actor to get his or her teeth into. Does anyone even think to research what actors are available who actually live with the disability in question? When a big star is interested in the project, the answer is a flat no.
And what about a main character whose limitations are intellectual? Again, it’s seen as a star vehicle: Think of Giulietta Masina as Gelsomina, Cliff Robertson as Charly, Dustin Hoffman as Raymond, Peter Sellers as Chance the Gardener, Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, Sean Penn as Sam. No one is out there scouting for actors with actual developmental disabilities to play such parts. The first lead role in a featurelength film for a person with Down syndrome was Philly Wohl playing himself in Ira Wohl’s 1979 Oscar-winning documentary Best Boy, and ten years later Chris Burke broke some serious new ground as the protagonist of the TV series Life Goes On. Lauren Potter, who played a long-running sidekick role in Glee, also has Down syndrome. But that’s about it. For the intellectually challenged, “representation” in movies still seems like a dauntingly distant goal.
Until now: Prepare yourself to fall head-over-heels in love with a lead character with Down syndrome on the big screen, portrayed by Zack Gottsagen, an actor who has genuinely walked the walk. The 34-year-old Floridian knew he wanted to act from early childhood on, and he had the good fortune to be born to a mother fierce enough to take on the Palm Beach board of education when it summarily rejected Zack’s application to attend a performing arts magnet school on account of his disability. Gottsagen’s confident screen presence in Becoming Bulletproof, Michael Barnett’s 2014 documentary about a group of disabled adults making a Western movie at Zeno Mountain Farm, inspired writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz to make their first feature film a vehicle specifically tailored to his talents.
The stunning result is The Peanut Butter Falcon, which strolled off with the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at this past spring’s SXSW Festival, for reasons that will become immediately apparent when you make haste to your local arts cinema to watch it. Gottsagen plays Zak, a young developmentally disabled man abandoned by his family to a North Carolina retirement home, who obsessively watches videos by a wrestling guru called the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and dreams of becoming a professional wrestler himself (the title refers to his preferred stage name). With the aid of his impish elderly roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak escapes and takes to the road wearing nothing but his tighty whities. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s caretaker, is dispatched to retrieve him before the state social services people find out about the security breach.
Meanwhile, the other lead character, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), has lost his fishing guide’s license after a fatal DUI accident and is reduced to stealing crabs from other crabbers’ pots to survive. A dispute with two other local fishermen, Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), incites Tyler to set their dock on fire. He steals a boat and flees, unaware that Zak has stowed away, asleep under a tarp. And so begins their adventure: two social misfits on the lam from the law, acting out a modern-day Huckleberry Finnesque odyssey down the Outer Banks, in search of refuge, their next meal and the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school. In pursuit are Duncan and Ratboy, seeking revenge, and Eleanor, seeking to save the innocent young man she mistakenly assumes to be utterly vulnerable and devoid of personal resources.
At first Tyler simply wants to be rid of his accidentally acquired buddy, but he succumbs as quickly as the audience to Zak’s straightforward, unpretentious charm. Seeing some local youths taunt Zak as a “retard” triggers the outlaw’s sense of righteous indignation, and a magical bond is forged. Soon Tyler is teaching Zak to swim and to shoot and to drink moonshine, passing the time on their ragtag journey by designing him a training regimen for his desired career.
There is so much to love about The Peanut Butter Falcon that it’s tough to know where to begin praising it. It deploys all the most winning aspects of what we think of when we say “Americana”: the romantic notion of outsiders who don’t thrive well within social safety nets finding one another and creating an intentional family. A conversation about Zak’s wrestling persona, leading to some deep homespun philosophizing about what makes a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” supplies the film’s thematic core. Zak helps Tyler find inner peace as much as Tyler puts Zak in the path to achieve his goals. Male bonding this sweet and rich, grounded in matters much deeper than the raunchy humor we’ve grown used to of late, has been in short supply in contemporary filmmaking. And then Eleanor finds them, and their shared flight becomes more complicated.
The cinematography of the southern Atlantic coast is stunning, the music score of raw gospel and old-timey bluegrass the best of its kind since O Brother, Where Art Thou? The core actors are all terrific (this coming from a critic who was hitherto not much of a LaBeouf fan); their journey is peppered with encounters with highly entertaining backwoods characters, the most engaging of whom is a wild-haired swamp preacher known as Blind Jasper John (Wayne Dehart), who makes the two white boys work hard for what they initially meant to steal from him. If there’s a notable weakness in this film, it’s the tiny number of female roles, but Johnson often grabs the spotlight as her character undergoes her own transformative flight from a bureaucracy-bound existence.
When applied to a movie, terms like “heartwarming” can strike some as a red flag of excess sentimentality to be avoided. I didn’t much like Forrest Gump, for precisely that reason. While PG-13 rated, The Peanut Butter Falcon has enough rough edges – including some scenes of alarming violence and cruelty – to avoid sliding into gooeyness, even while it burrows itself somewhere underneath your sternum and kindles a gentle glow. You will be rooting enthusiastically for this team of scalawags to find their various ways to freedom, and you’ll come out of the theater with a grin on your face. The very talented Zack Gottsagen deserves much of the credit. I expect we’ll see him up there onscreen again, representing a future filled with lots more meaty stories told by those who live them.