I can count on single digits how many mentally or physically disabled actors I’ve seen in major film or television productions, so it is always refreshing to see a new face like Zack Gottsagen get a major role. Like his character (also named Zack), Gottsagen has Down Syndrome. And like his character, he is not letting it stop him from doing what he wants. When directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met the actor at a camp for disabled actors, he wanted to know about the possibility of him starring in a film. The answer was “statistically speaking, it’s probably not going to happen.” So instead, Zack asked the duo to make a movie for him. The indie soon garnered interest, with name actors like Shia LeBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and Thomas Hayden Church signing on. Next thing you know, they had an award-winning movie at SXSW.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is about two young men who meet up for an unlikely adventure, in the most Mark-Twainish way. In the outer banks of North Carolina (gorgeously filmed, by the way), Tyler (LeBeouf) is a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman, on the run for making a poor choice in the heat of anger toward a rival. Zack (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down Syndrome frustrated that he is living at an old folk’s home (his family abandoned him), when all he really wanted to do was become a professional wrestler. Credit goes to Tyler for being relatively unphased to come across Zack in his underwear, hiding out in his boat after slithering out of the window at the home.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is essentially a road movie–on foot, on land, and in the water, as Tyler and Zack make their way to the only goal they can focus on: Florida. While they are bonding, Zack’s caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is on Zack’s trail, while Tyler is being tracked by the other fisherman who are out for revenge.
This is a film that could have very easily devolved into a coddling, “very-special” treatment of the character of Zack. But it is clear that most people–from Zack’s elderly buddy at the home (Bruce Dern) to Eleanor to Tyler–don’t treat him that much differently once the so-called elephant has been acknowledged in the room. Of course, it could easily be because they are fine actors, but it is hard not to see what looks like genuine affection of the actors toward each other and in this film. In particular, it looks like LeBeouf and Johnson are having a great time.
Credit goes to Gottsagen as well for a fine performance. He has great chemistry with LeBeouf, and you can see the warmth and affection grow. There is a memorable point where he is faced with the brutal, in-your-face physicality of theatrical wrestling, and you can see the enthusiasm wordlessly drain from his face. But, like his buddies, you root for him to achieve his dream whatever version of that dream ends up happening. It is a refreshingly sweet (not sugary) journey.