Actors with Down Syndrome are a notoriously underrepresented group in the film industry. In fact, actors with disabilities in general are deplorably rare in film and on television. There is an implicit assumption that people with intellectual disabilities in particular must be unequal to the task of acting.
"Peanut Butter Falcon" tells the tale of a young man with Down syndrome, Zak, who has no family and has been sent to a nursing home for the elderly because the state believes that is what is best for him. But Zak knows that he does not belong there and becomes obsessed with the idea of meeting his idol, "Salt Water Redneck," a local professional wrestler depicted on Zak's beloved VHS tape. Thus, with a little help from the residents of the nursing home, Zak commences planning his grand escape so that he can begin his quest for Salt Water Redneck's training camp advertised on the VHS.
Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, plays "Zak," and his performance blew me away. It was the perfect combination of endearing innocence, triumph in the midst of hardships, and humor. And he seemed like such a natural in front of the camera. He held his own in scenes with his co-star who is an extremely talented actor in his own right, the inimitable Shia LaBeouf. The movie is a coming of age journey akin to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. There is adventure, romance, and redemption. There is a sprinkling of magical realism. And it is visually stunning.
The story behind the scenes of the movie is equally inspiring. Actor Shia LaBeouf went out one night during the filming of the movie in Savannah, Georgia, and was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. When he returned in disgrace to the set of Peanut Butter Falcon, LaBeouf claims that Gottsagen was the only one that insisted without judgment that he expected better from him. LaBeouf speaks of how his relationship with Gottsagen changed him: "I was quite judgmental, the judgy type. You would be half empty with me before we started our conversation . . . Just edgy with the world. [Gottsagen] meets everybody with the glass full. Everyone starts at a hundred with him. It makes it easier to live." Interview here.
ADVISORY: Characters do use the word "retarded" in this movie. However, they use it in a realistic and edifying way, and not in a normalizing or glorifying manner. The filmmakers employed the use of this word in this story as another trial that Zak needs to overcome. It is an uncomfortable fact that people with intellectual disabilities and their loved ones encounter derogatory and insulting uses of this word constantly. So, it was actually refreshing to see it dealt with in an honest, yet inspiring way.
Everyone should go see this movie. It will most certainly be snubbed by the establishment at the Academy Awards, but I would absolutely love for this to become a cult classic. It is proof positive that actors with Down syndrome can not only hold their own when cast as a lead on the silver screen, but they can deliver scene stealing performances. And maybe, just maybe, it will instigate the change that needs to happen in the film industry when it comes to a just representation of actors with Down syndrome (and all others in the special needs community!)