Zack Gottsagen became the first Academy Awards presenter with Down Syndrome when he appeared at the 2020 bash; he got a standing ovation for his efforts, but it’s probably true to say that such acclaim is not par for the course for those with his condition. In general, people with Downs find it difficult to find acceptance, and that subject is central to Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s drama, in which Zak escapes from his shared bedsit in a group home and seeks a more convivial environment. A passing kid invites him to drown himself; such careless aggression is more typical of the kind of resistance that such outsiders might meet.
To pause for a second; The Peanut Butter Falcon was the most popular independent movie of 2019, quite an achievement. Part of the success must be attributed to the casting; we’re always happy to see the likes of John Hawkes, Thomas Hayden Church and Bruce Dern. Indie movies have traditionally provided redemption to stars keen to prove themselves; Dakota Johnson and Shia LaBeouf take the chance to erase their roles in painful blockbusters. But best of all is the casting of a man with Down Syndrome as a man with Down Syndrome; that might not sound like rocket science, but it’s become an awards clichés for able bodied performers to contort themselves, via make-up and effects, into the less able. The film-makers did a series of tests with Gottsagen to prove that he was more than able to carry the main role in a feature; a large part of the appeal of the film comes from the freshness of Gottsagen’s performance.
Zak is termed a flight risk, and correctly so; he greases himself up like a cross-channel swimmer and escapes through the window of his home, only to hook up with Tyler (LaBeouf), a down-on-his-luck fisherman who grudgingly recognises a kindred spirit. Zak is keen to travel to a wrestling camp, and Tyler takes his request on –board, fashioning a sailing boat to take them down the river, with Eleanor (Johnson) in pursuit.
The wry simplicity of Mark Twain hangs over The Peanut Batter Falcon in a good way; this is a folksy kind of film, a gentle and occasionally profound story of people who fight to get in touch with their ambitions. The cast are uniformly excellent, and the pacing is languorous and fine; Gottsagen’s condition is not presented as a novelty, but as part of his character. We’re encouraged to see the world as he sees it, and his good humour is infectious. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the name of the wrestling alter-ego that Zak used in the film’s final scenes, which neatly balance wish-fulfilment and realism. In truth, the whole film walks a tightrope between sentiment and tough reality; it’s one of the most likable films of its genre to come down the pike in a very long time.