It’s nice when you watch the opening scene of a movie you get a sense the story that follows is going to taste like the perfect mix of peanut butter and chocolate. Ooey gooey and sweet, yet strangely filling. The Peanut Butter Falcon wears its heart on its sleeve and dares you not to like it from the first moment when our 22-year old hero Zak (Zach Gottsagen) hatches a plot to escape from the retirement home the state has placed him in. Once he successfully gets away, he meets up with Tyler (Shia Lebeouf) and the two band together as they journey to Florida to pursue their dreams. As their relationship develops into friendship, the film highlights how stereotypes influence both conscious and unconscious bias, the worth of having a purpose to follow, and ultimately how acceptance of your past struggles is what leads to redemption.
One of the best themes in The Peanut Butter Falcon is how it treats Zak, an adult with down syndrome, as a person with value that has valid desires, hopes and worth without being trite or condescending. Early in the movie, Zak’s elderly roommate Carl is shown a picture Zak drew of himself with muscles and escaping out the emergency exit. Carl tells Eleanor, the social worker assigned to Zak how the picture is actually “genius” because it shows exactly what Zak wants to do with the rest of his life instead of being stuck in a retirement home, and how many people ever have that kind of certainty about what they want? Later on, Zak tells Tyler that he is a “Down Syndrome person”, to which Zak replies that doesn’t matter, all he cares about is having the supplies they need for the trip. The film is very upfront about pushing through those preconceived barriers of how media historically portrays special needs individuals, and the success with which it does that is alone, by itself, reason enough to see this film.
The larger fact that the journey portrayed in the film of Zak chasing his dream of being a wrestler, is parallel to the behind the scenes real-life journey of Zach pursuing his dream of being an actor, gives The Peanut Butter Falcon a certain gravitas and deeper impression that is rather unique and meaningful. The film exists because, after meeting with Zach at an acting camp, the producers made a short concept film that led to this full-length feature; so the film itself is proof that a dream can be realized. A wonderful culmination to the power of art and storytelling.
The film is filled with great moments, such as when Tyler and Zak are crossing a river and Zak asks if he is going to die. Tyler responds that it’s okay to die as long as you had a good story to tell. Not to spoil it, but on the far side of the river Zak gets in one of the funniest lines of the movie. As they travel, Tyler begins to train Zak for his wrestling career, teaches him to shoot a shotgun and how to swim. One night around the fire Zak confesses he wants to be a bad guy in wrestling because his family left him, so he must be bad. Tyler tells him how just because bad things happen to you doesn’t make you a bad person, and that he has a good strong heart. This is also where we learn about the pain and guilt that is haunting Tyler, and is another area where the film handles emotional subject matter without being patronizing. From that moment on, The Peanut Butter Falcon becomes a story just as much about redemption as it is about perseverance.
Another great moment is just before Zak has his wrestling debut and he admits to Tyler that he is scared. In nearly every other sports movie where the underdog has finally made it onto the field before the big game it’s always shown as happy, enthusiastic, it was always meant to be, away we go and the crowd cheers and championships are won. Here, yet again, the filmmakers overthrow that preconception and show us that even if you’ve pursued your dream to the point where it’s about to happen there can still be apprehension and fear. Especially if you’ve had to overcome an enormous amount of past trauma, such as Zak being called ‘retard’ or treated as a incapable child constantly. That big moment he has always dreamed of doesn’t simply make everything else go away or perfectly better. The undertones of anyone having to deal with stress and depression and fight their way out of it are maybe a bit obvious here, but it’s also entirely relatable and shows that the film’s heart is in the right place, once again daring you not to feel good or cheer as The Peanut Butter Falcon enters the ring.
The relationship between Tyler and Zak is what the movie hangs on, and in that regard it is successful in spades. Their conversations and friendship are worth taking to heart and experiencing for yourself. One of Tyler’s lines in the trailer is “While you’ve been doing paperwork, we’ve been doing something called living” and that is exactly what The Peanut Butter Falcon is about. Getting dust and dirt on your face. Getting knocked down and getting back up. Eating fish and peanut butter on a stick. Feeling every emotion in between. And most of all, living in the arena instead of watching it on the sidelines.
The Peanut Butter Falcon plays as the first film of the Red Deer Museum’s Fall 2019 Reel Movie Mondays series on October 7, 2019 at Carnival Cinemas in Red Deer. Enjoy the show!