This weekend was the opening of the movie The Peanut Butter Falcon. As parents of a child with Down syndrome, my husband Peter and I were curious and excited to see a narrative film starring an actor with Down syndrome. The first thing I will say is: go see this film. Below are the rest of my thoughts on the The Peanut Butter Falcon.
A young man named Zack (played by Zack Gottsagen) is longing for freedom from his imprisonment within a nursing home. He has Down syndrome. His family has abandoned him. He has become the responsibility of the state.
A young man named Tyler (played by Shia LaBeouf) is longing for freedom from his imprisonment to grief. He has lost his brother. He has resorted to theft and anger.
They find each other when they are both running away, and the result is The Peanut Butter Falcon, a new film about friendship and healing and love.
This film is not really about Down syndrome, although the portrayal of a person with Down syndrome struck me (and my husband Peter) as accurate and refreshing. Zack is competent, funny, smart, loving, vulnerable, needy, and strong. It’s really a film about the ways in which human connection–and perhaps especially unexpected human connections–can draw forth the best of who we are and help us believe in ourselves again.
It’s unusual to see a friendship between two men depicted on film in general, but the physicality of the relationship between Zack and Tyler struck us as particularly important. They establish a bond through their conversations and shared experiences, but they also build their friendship through hugs and high fives and dancing and working out. There is nothing sexual about their relationship, but it is still a relationship that contains a lot of physical touch. Friendship develops through the mind, the body, and the spirit, and to watch that happen is just one of the beautiful aspects of this film.
I don’t want to give away the most poignant and true scenes of this movie, but the conversations Zack and Tyler have about how Tyler has been treated as a person with Down syndrome and the conversation they have about whether they are good guys or bad guys were particularly moving.
Tyler also accuses Eleanor (played by Dakota Johnson), Zack’s helper from the nursing home, of calling him “retarded.” She takes great offense. She has never used that word and she is devoted to Zack and his care. Nevertheless, Tyler persists, every time she “helps” him by suggesting he should be more careful, every time she insists he eat and drink when he doesn’t want food or water, she is playing into the same narrative that the rest of the world imposes upon Zack. She belittles him with her care. It is the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” (a phrase popularized by President Bush in reference to education, but relevant here).
I have one critique of the film–the three African American characters in the film are all tropes of different sorts. None are fully realized, and all are used rather than developed, in contrast to all the white characters. In a film that clearly is concerned with establishing our common humanity and the ways we can bless each other through friendships that overcome social divisions, it was disappointing to see the filmmakers take these shortcuts.
Nevertheless, I unreservedly recommend The Peanut Butter Falcon. It is a well-acted, beautifully shot, poignant story about friendship and hope.
Additionally, If you’re interested in other movies starring a person with Down syndrome, let me recommend the compelling documentary film Normie.