Film & TV

A Movie Star with Down Syndrome

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon (Seth Johnson/Roadside Attractions/Armory Films)
Zack Gottsagen gives an impressive performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon.

‘Am I going to die?” a young man with Down syndrome asks his unlikely new friend, a rogue on the run. Sure, says the latter. “But that ain’t the question. Question’s whether they’re gonna have good stories to tell about you when you’re gone.”

The human reclamation project known as Shia LaBeouf proves an excellent choice to play a crafty rascal in The Peanut Butter Falcon, a touching if formulaic road-trip buddy movie with antecedents going back at least to The Defiant Ones. Both picaresque and picturesque, The Peanut Butter Falcon is set along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where LaBeouf’s Tyler, an unlicensed crab fisherman, is on the run for his life, having stolen crab pots from a rival fisherman (John Hawkes) in an unwise attempt to honor his dead brother, who held one of the few local licenses.

Zack Gottsagen, a man with Down syndrome, ebulliently plays Tyler’s 22-year-old sudden companion, Zak, who hides on Tyler’s boat after busting out of a nursing home where he has been left to rot and that he is forbidden to leave. His caregivers show their love for him by installing iron bars on his windows. When he finally flees, he is wearing nothing but his tighty-whities and the grease he used to squeeze through those window bars.

LaBeouf, who became a star first on screen and then on the gossip pages before he knew much about acting, has been steadily improving as a performer in a series of low-budget independent movies, such as the gripping American Honey (2016). He proves a surprisingly natural mentor for the appealing Zak, portrayed by a young man with no previous acting experience who inspired writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz to build this movie around him.

Though this is a formula picture that occasionally ventures into hokey territory (notably in its climactic moments), it’s engaging and warm throughout. The odd-couple road movie is one of many sturdy formats in which the major Hollywood studios have lost interest, but as with other genres (such as soapy dramas and rom-coms), low-budget indie filmmakers have filled the gap. The main difference is that such movies no longer command large marketing budgets, so they may escape your attention.

As its mismatched pals splash through the tidelands, The Peanut Butter Falcon fairly glows with local color and oddball characters, such as the blind backwoodsman who first threatens to shoot the boys but then gives Zak a full-immersion baptism to underline his rebirth away from his minders at the nursing home. All he wants is a little help finding his way to a training camp run by his professional-wrestling idol, Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whose routines he knows from ancient VHS video tapes. Bonding drunkenly with Tyler over a campfire, Zak dreams up his pro-wrestling persona: Peanut Butter Falcon. Zak has never learned to swim, but that’s because he has simply never been taught that, or much of anything else.

The subtext is the shameful way people with DS have been dismissed or abandoned, sometimes in the name of protecting them. Zak’s caregiver from the nursing home, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), tracks him down with the best intentions, but she is the personification of the smothering embrace of the feminine, the maternal, and the statist instincts, the impulse to bubble-wrap everyone, especially those labeled vulnerable. When she catches up to Zak, she fusses with his shirt, to Tyler’s disbelief: “He can put his own shirt on, he’s 22 years old,” Tyler says, not mentioning that thanks to him, Zak also has learned to handle a shotgun. Observe how Eleanor is an agent of a regulatory/therapeutic regime that prevents you from doing anything, for your own good:

Look, he needs to be properly taken care of, and that’s my job.

I’m sorry to break up your little primitive gang or whatever is going on but this is not Lord of the Flies. You can’t just —

There’s rules, there’s regulations. He has medications. There’s paperwork!

Tyler insists Zak is fine where he is. But Eleanor (a rich girl who is doing penance for her privilege by working in the nursing home, where she also gets to rule her social inferiors) says, “I’m sure I could find some reason to arrest you.” Is she wrong? The full force of the state tends to back those who want to lock up or otherwise deny living to people with Down syndrome and to other kinds of challenged folk. As is so often the case, the state eagerly steps in for the family, which in Zak’s case has simply dumped him in the nursing home and forgotten him. People with Down syndrome can’t do everything, but for too long and for too many the attitude has been that they can’t do anything. Eleanor is of a class that would never use the word “retard,” yet retarding Zak’s development is exactly what she has been doing. “You might not be saying the word, ‘retard,’ I’ll give you that,” says Tyler, “but you damn sure is making him feel retarded. That ain’t going to help his life.”

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