THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a perfect end-of-summer movie. It’s for when the sun is high–and in many places, far too hot–because it’s about endings and new beginnings.
Zak is a young man living in an old folks’ nursing home. That’s because Zak has Down syndrome, no family, and no place else to live. Like most young people, Zak has dreams, and his dream is to break out of his ‘prison’ and become a pro wrestler like Salt Water Redneck, the star of the VHS tapes Zak watches over and over on TV. With help from a friend, Zak eventually finds a way out. Eleanor (who volunteers at the home) is blamed for his escape, and her boss orders her to track him down. Meanwhile, Tyler is a lost soul in a heap of trouble. Fired from his job for stealing clam pots from a rival group of fishermen–the kind you wouldn’t want to run across in a dark alley or in broad daylight–he does something even worse that demands their revenge. The boat Tyler uses to make his escape is the place where run-away Zak has holed up to get some sleep, and a road-&-water trip is born (with echoes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Tyler is aiming for Florida, but Zak’s sights are set on a wrestling camp in Georgia run by his idol.
The three leads are terrific individually and together. Shia LaBoeuf (Tyler) is only thirty-three, but he’s a veteran–a child star in the Disney series Even Stevens, who went on to enjoy adult fame in the Transformer films, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, an Indiana Jones film (#4), and others before flaming out a couple of years ago. With this film, he looks to be back in control of his career with more opportunities sure to follow. Dakota Johnson (Eleanor) is probably best known for her starring role in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies. This role couldn’t be more different and she, too, soars in the part. The film itself wouldn’t be possible without Zack Gottsagen (Zak), a thirty-four-year-old actor with his first chance at realizing his dream of becoming a movie star.
Not bad for a young man whose mother was told, after he was born, that he’d never walk or talk. A recent article in The S. Florida Sun Sentinel told me the most amazing stories about Zack’s life. Zack met newbie filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz at Zeno Mountain Farm in L.A., where performers with and without disabilities meet to produce short films. Zack blew them away with the acting he’d done as the star of a short film, but they didn’t feel they could encourage him to keep dreaming about becoming a movie star. Until they decided they had to and spent five years making sure the film got made (for much of that time, living in a tent in L.A.) Nilson was set to play the role of Tyler, until a five-minute trailer caught the attention of LaBoeuf, who asked to play the part.
While filming, LaBoeuf got into trouble in Savannah, GA, and was arrested for public drunkenness, obstruction, and disorderly conduct, which was caught on film and shared with the public. When he returned to the set, Zack had something to say to his co-star and friend.
“To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life. Zack can’t not shoot straight. . .in that moment I needed a straight shooter who I couldn’t argue with.” LaBoeuf in an Esquire Magazine interview, 2018
Real-life Zack has loving parents who support his dreams, and he’s able to live on his own. He graduated in 2004 from a School of the Arts in W. Palm Beach, FL, and has taught acting and dance at a local Jewish Community Center. The “Jack Effect,” according to his co-stars in the film, is “magical”.
The doctors at a Brooklyn hospital who diagnosed Zack with Down syndrome told his mother he’d be a “total vegetable” and better off in an institution. “I thanked them and told them I’m a vegetarian and I’ll take my vegetable to go.” Shelley Gottsagen, as reported by Ben Crandell, The S. Florida Sun Sentinel, August 22, 2019
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON strikes a perfect balance (in my opinion). It isn’t overly sentimental. Nor does it use Zack’s Down syndrome for cheap laughs. The film walks a tightrope over both and delivers something special. There’s drama and pain and sadness, but there’s also laughter and love and the little things that make life worth living.