‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ Soars its Way Into Your Heart
“Friends are the family you choose”
While volunteering at a Santa Monica camp called Zeno Mountain Farm, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met Zack Gottsagen. Participating in the camp’s acting workshop, Gottsagen had big dreams to become an actor. Nilson and Schwartz instantly recognized Gottsagen’s talents, and vowed to write a film featuring him in the leading role. The only hurdle was that neither Nilson nor Schwartz had any feature-film screenwriting experience.
It took time and determination, but Nilson and Schwartz wrote The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019). Using Gottsagen’s drive to become an actor as inspiration, the film tells the story of a young man named Zak with Down syndrome who has been living in a retirement home with big dreams to become a wrestler. He escapes the home, where his path intersects with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a man on the run dealing with his own demons. The two form a deep friendship as they set on a journey to get Zak to a wrestling school in Florida.
While some of the story beats adhere to formula, you would never guess this film was made by first time writer/directors. It is beautifully told, with some gorgeous wide shots. The performances, especially Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf, are phenomenal. This is a film about perseverance and friendship that has many layers to it, and resonates so deeply.
This film excels because of the chemistry between Gottsagen and LaBeouf. Their friendship is so palpable on screen, mainly due to the connection the two actors formed in real life. At the 2020 Academy Awards, Shia LaBeouf was asked to present an award, to which he responded that he would only do so if Gottsagen could present the award with him. It was one of the highlights of the night, as you could tell Gottsagen was simply ecstatic to be standing on stage.
Zack Gottsagen is going to be a star. This is his feature film debut, and he is excellent in it. He is full of personality and liveliness, and has great comedic timing. A lot of the film’s best lines were improvised by Gottsagen. Not only is he a great stand-alone actor, but he has a special ability to build up and enhance his co-star’s performance. Shia LaBeouf shines as much as he does because of how Gottsagen plays their scenes together.
The best part of the movie are the scenes where it is just Tyler and Zak goofing around and having fun. Zak has never been out on his own before, having only ever lived under supervised care. With Tyler, he gets to experience new things and live life to the fullest. All of his life, Zak has been told what his limits are, but for the first time he is with someone who pushes him to figure out his limits for himself. With this, Zak finds more strength within himself than he ever knew he had.
There are very few movies out there with actors with Down syndrome in the leading roles. The few that are made usually center around the character’s Down syndrome. What is so great about The Peanut Butter Falcon is that the movie isn’t about Down syndrome. It is about Zak’s journey to discover what life has to offer, and to live out his dream of being a wrestler.
The Peanut Butter Falcon has some really powerful themes about other people setting limitations for those with disabilities. Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, the nursing home attendant who has been taking care of Zak. When she finds him with Tyler, she is shocked by how Tyler encourages Zak to do things she thinks aren’t safe. What Tyler makes her understand is that setting strict limitations for what Zak can and cannot do doesn’t allow for him to grow.
If Zak spends all of his life being told what he is incapable of doing, he’ll never have a chance to find out for himself. It’s a beautiful message about empowerment, and learning how to support someone without making decisions for them. While Zak experiences failure and learns what his limitations are, he also discovers what his strengths are. Through this whole experience, he comes to learn who he really is.
Overall, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a really sweet movie about friendship. It speaks to the close bonds we form with other people, and how the strength of those bonds come from the trust we put in each other. It’s a film that says you need to put yourself out there, because nothing will change if you don’t at least try. Most of all, it speaks to how disabilities aren’t limitations for people, but rather gives them a unique set of strengths that other people don’t necessarily have.
This was one of the 2019 movies that I missed seeing in theaters. I was very happy to have the chance to catch up on it, because it is a really fun and special movie. Hilarious and charming, it will instantly make you fall in love with Zack Gottsagen. I cannot wait to see what he does next, as well as writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is streaming on Amazon Prime.