Sometime around 2011, first-time narrative directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met Zach Gottsagen at a camp for actors with disabilities. Gottsagen expressed an interest in making a film with them. So they wrote him a film. Reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine or maybe Kings of Summer, but with just enough difference to make it feel fresh, it’s a wholesome adventure about two men finding companionship on a trek through the wild. You know, ‘like a Mark Twain story or something.’
Zak (Zach Gottsagen), a 22-year-old with Down syndrome, dreams of being a professional wrestler. The only thing standing in his way is the nursing home he’s placed in. Hatching a plan to escape to his hero’s wrestling school, soon he’s lost on the riverbanks of Georgia. There, he races headfirst into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled fisherman who will become an unlikely companion. Both are alone, on the run, and desperately in need of being understood. While they travel South, two manhunts converge, and at the centre is a promise to fulfil a wild dream.
Shot mostly with natural lighting, in locations that didn’t require permits, and accompanied with a gentle indie-folk soundtrack, this film feels like a homegrown experience. At its heart, it is about loners and loneliness, and the gap that companionship can bridge. Tyler’s shotgun, previously belonging to his late brother, has ‘family first’ scratched into its handle, summing up the film pretty well. You get a real feeling there was a family behind the camera stitching it together. There’s no need for cutting-edge visuals or effects (though cinematographer Nigel Bluck still designs some beautiful shots). Simplicity, it seems, is the key. Simplicity, and honesty.
The warm feeling this film gives you stays long after the credits roll when you realise that, with its story in-part inspired by the ambitions of its lead actor, Zach Gottsagen was able to actually live out his dream. It should go without saying, but casting an actor who actually has Down syndrome is incredibly important. Acting ability is one thing, but when it comes to representation people with disabilities should be able to see actual people with disabilities on screen. And Gottsagen doesn’t just tick the box, he performs marvellously, with Shia LaBeouf giving a once again shining performance opposite him,.
Representation is universally recognised as one of the most important issues in the industry right now. The kind that Nilson and Schwartz offer is one of the most important; to be recognised, acknowledged – and then accepted. Zak has a disability, and it’s a big part of his journey and the journey of others to understand him. But it doesn’t dominate his whole character, as so many disabilities usually become on screen; it’s an aspect of a person with dreams, a playful personality, and a deep connection with his friends. The fact that his condition is normalised so that he can be a fully-developed character in his own right is extraordinarily significant for the progress of disability representation.
The film is quiet, understated, and wholly absorbing. Albeit starting on slightly uneven footing in the pursuit of getting all the exposition out there asap, once Zak and Tyler meet there isn’t a moment you want to look away. It might be pretty optimistic in its wholesomeness, but what’s the point of the movies if they can’t be? Especially in a film that is committed to its faithful and hopeful representation for a community that is practically never shown on screen whatsoever. We need more films like The Peanut Butter Falcon.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is available now on Digital
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.