Thank you, Peanut Butter Falcon.
Though movie-going as a whole is something of a dying medium, the space for certain kinds of films is rapidly shrinking. In the age of Marvel movies, what we’ve found people are willing to travel to the cinema for are galactic, serialized, blockbuster hits- at least more than anything else. Despite some recent golden examples, ones like Roma, Mid 90s, and The Farewell- films that celebrate their unique and highly specific message- there is an ever-increasing absence, at least in wide release, of movies that intentionally and drastically limit their target demographic.
Part of this is understandable. One of the main reasons people no longer frequent theatres is sheerly down to price. Taking the family to a Sunday flick is an expensive outing, one that’s far less enticing when you’re gambling on the level of enjoyment. Serializing an expensive movie-going experience guarantees some level of satisfaction or, at least, interest for the audience.
There is, however, an adverse effect of this synthesis. Whether we like it or not, movies are, and always have been, the barometer of our socially defined values. We emulate, look to, and ascribe much of what we do, should do, and have done, to film, because it’s one of the only ways we can broadly engage with societally defined concepts. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the mega-movies dominating movie theatres across the US, at least if you don’t think about it too hard, but the disappearance of smaller films- ones that explore new and more specific concepts- as a result, is something we might regret just after it’s too late.
There’s perhaps no greater current example of this kind of rapidly vanishing film than The Peanut Butter Falcon. Despite failing to grapple with the fate of the universe or destroy a city, the tale of two men on the lam manages to communicate a message well-worth a spot at your local theatre, while offering a platform for important and often misrepresented people.
So much of what Shia LaBeouf’s Peanut Butter Falcon does right is present in the first minute of the film. Starting with a close up of its breakout star Zack Gottsagen, LaBeouf’s latest directorial foray immediately subverts what’s often expected of those living with intellectual disabilities. In a succinct, simultaneously heartwarming and hilarious scene between Zack and his fellow retirement home cohorts, Gottsagen’s character utilizes the innocence we, as a society, ascribe to people like him as a way to communicate the film’s central message. In giving his chocolate pudding to another resident of the communal home, Zack appears to be the kindly but ultimately ineffectual character those with Down syndrome are usually portrayed as. Operating as some vehicle for pity, inspiration, or spectacle, those with disabilities are rarely ever given the agency to act normally in media portrayals- a dangerous precedent that parallels the lives of many in day to day life.
Yet, as we come to learn, Zack and the woman he gives the pudding to have devised a plot for his escape. The main character’s manipulation of how people see him displays a cleverness common among many with intellectual disabilities, but it also allows the film to engage with the boilerplate rhetoric that surrounds communities dealing with genetic disorders. LaBeouf and Gottasegen set the tone for what the movie strives to communicate: this isn’t your average tale of a kid with downs, one that uses intellectual disabilities in any variety of condescending tones. It’s a film that allows Zack, and others like him, to actually exist.
Perhaps the greatest example of Zack’s agency is the duality between how Tyler, Shia LaBeouf’s character, and Elenor, played by Dakota Johnson, treat Zack. Elenor’s background in traditional caregiving is well-intentioned and, in a lot of senses, necessary. Medication schedules, a safe community, and dedicated caregivers are just a small part of what is required. But so is what Tyler offers: treating him like any other person is powerful and, more importantly, just as essential as any other kind of care.
In a scene following their initial unification, Elenor and Tyler’s contrasting styles clash as they sail on a raft towards their goal. Where Tyler exists as an equal, “two men on the lam,” something Tyler referred to when they first found one another, he lets Zack be. Elenor’s tendency to try and shoo Zack away from the edge of the raft is understandable, but, as Tyler aptly points out, patronizing.
Tyler: “Don’t call him a retard.”
Elenor: “I never used that word, or even said anything like it.”
Tyler: “Right, but you’re telling and judging him by what you think he can’t do.”
Zack then unknowingly stops their conversation about the way he should be treated by showing them the fish he caught with his bare hands.
If anything, whether intentionally or not, the raft scene exists as an allegory. Without both Tyler and Elenor, it’s fair to say Zack wouldn’t be able to traverse the murky waters blocking the path to his goal. But with both a watchful eye and a forgiving hand, his creativity and ability to contribute can be fully realized. So often, these people are robbed of any ability to simply exist within the world. To succeed or fail. To experience danger, achievement, or any of the other million things that make us all human.
What’s so brilliant about this short tale of unlikely kinship is that it exists in both the real and irreal. The entire movie revolves around Tyler’s promise to get Zack to a wrestling camp: something he yearned for since his days in the retirement home, where he could learn and live out his dream as a professional wrestler. Both Zack and the character he plays in the movie get to actualize their dreams. Zack, the fictitious wanderer, gets to undergo a hero’s journey of setbacks and conquest, while Zack Gottsagen, the real-life actor, gets to play a realistic portrayal of himself. Without the sob story or someone else to speak for him, Zack lives boldly on screen. Bravely displaying what it means to be himself.
Unlike some of the more niche films mentioned above, there are few who will be able to relate to some of the experiences in Peanut Butter Falcon. Even a cursory understanding of life with and around those experiencing these issues can never truly communicate what it is to exist with them. In some ways, the film, through no fault of its own, fails to describe that harsh reality. In the short fantasy of the three strangers turned family, the monotony of the every day is entirely ignored, as is the unpredictability that can come with these disorders. Temper tantrums, the painstaking process of learning, and any variety of specificities that vary from person to person are all things that aren’t seen in the film- but the point remains.
I’ve lived with my brother Carlos for almost my entire life. Like Zack, he has Down syndrome, but that’s probably the last thing I think of when he comes to mind. I think about how he likes to mess with me when I come home, ignoring me until I get frustrated. Until I see that crooked smile, giggling. I think about how he’s sweet-talked just about every pretty waitress my family has ever come in contact with despite being largely non-verbal. I think about how much he loves Disney movies and how much of my own grey matter is taken up by a perfect, unwilling memory of The Little Mermaid.
The twenty-four years I’ve lived with my brother haven’t always been easy. In fact, often the contrary. Taking care of someone with intellectual disabilities is a full-time job and one that I didn’t have enough respect for until recently. A few years ago, my family and I watched as my brother regressed simply due to a lack of engagement. We’re certainly in no position to complain, as we’ve always had the resources to provide for him, but no amount of money can replicate genuine interactions and environments. Like Zack’s character in the film, those without the care of their families are shunted around- often to places that don’t meet their needs.
Carlos is doing better now, but it’s not because of some miracle treatment or medical breakthrough: it’s because of an extension to a program that allows him to continue academic and social engagement. In an age where mainstream media exists to satiate as broad a palette as physically possible, I’m eternally grateful there’s something that expresses exactly what can help someone like my brother most. More than any donation, social media post, or t-shirt, the thing that helps people with intellectual disabilities is treating them for what they are, rather for what they’re not.
I went to see The Peanut Butter Falcon alone and I cried the entire time. My brother probably won’t ever care to see it, and it doesn’t matter if he does. What matters is that it exists and that the message imparted in the short, intimate tale, is communicated to the people who can make a difference. What I fear is the day these films no longer justify themselves as financial expenditures, and what might be lost when that grim reality rears its ugly head.