The Peanut Butter Falcon: A Beautiful Film About Equality

The great Roger Ebert once described the 1999 film The Other Sister as “Shameless in its use of mental retardation as a gimmick, a prop, and a punchline.” He went on to say that the film “treats its characters like cute little performing seals delivering their ‘retarded’ dialouge with perfect timing and edge of irony and drama.” These opening lines of Ebert’s review hit the nail on the head when it comes to Hollywood’s treatment of the intellectually disabled, as these characters are rarely given any dignity or depth when portrayed on the big screen. So it delights me to no end to report that not only is Tyler Nilson and Micheal Schwartez’s directorial debut The Peanut Butter Falcon an incredibly sweet and lovable film, but it also avoids the offensive tropes employed by other movies. 

The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down Syndrome who runs away from his nursing home in order to pursue his dream of becoming a famous wrestler. Helping him on his journey is Tyler (Shia Labeouf), an outlaw who ends up forming a brotherly bond with Zak. The main duo are pursued by two unrelated entities: Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak’s concerned caretaker, and Duncan (John Hawkes), a murderous redneck with a vendetta against Tyler. 

When Zak first meets Tyler, he feels the need to tell him that he suffers from Down Syndrome. Tyler’s response is a perfect example of the film’s outlook as he replies, “I don’t really give a sh*t.” What makes The Peanut Butter Falcon so refreshing is its refusal to coddle the protagonist. Characters that give Zak special treatment are rightfully called out, and the film shows that Zak is able to thrive when treated like everyone else. Zak’s character is a noticeable step up from how other mentally handicapped characters are portrayed in movies. The writers give him plenty of depth and character development. Because of this, Gottsagen is able to show off his incredible comedic timing and immense likability, his performance elevating the film. 

A lot of the The Peanut Butter Falcon’s charm comes from the film’s brilliant cast. Shia Labeouf is outstanding in this film, expertly balancing the role of a jaded outlaw and that of a loving brother. Dakota Johnson gives an excellent performance as well through her seemingly patronizing, but, in actuality, caring behavior. The filmmakers also give small but memorable roles to many talented actors including Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Haden Church. But as I said before, the clear standout is Zack Gottsagen. Not only is Gottsagen both funny and charming, but he also manages to come across as emotionally authentic. Gottsagen makes you feel how important it is for Zak to become a wrestler, as his performance really sells the determination of his character. 

I honestly can’t recommend The Peanut Butter Falcon enough. It is easily one of the best movies playing in theaters right now. Maybe some people will find the movie’s underlying sweetness corny or see its storytelling as derivative, but I think that it’s part of the film’s charm. The Peanut Butter Falcon feels more like an homage than a rip-off, with the filmmakers adding just enough quirks to the journey to help it stand out against similar fables. And sure, the writing is at times sappy and even a little cliché, but it never feels inauthentic or cloying. The film’s story is presented without any sense of cynicism, and, in my opinion, this was the perfect way to tell it. So if you’re in need of a great feel-good movie, check out The Peanut Butter Falcon at Merrill’s Roxy Cinema. 

Grade: A