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  Peanut Butter Falcon, The Down River
Year: 2019
Director: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jonathan D. Williams, Deja Dee, Lee Spencer, Mark Helms, Bruce Henderson, Wayne Dehart, Susan McPhail, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley
Genre: Comedy, Drama, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Zak (Zack Gottsagen) lives in a care home for the elderly ever since his family abandoned him there, for he has Down Syndrome and they did not fancy looking after him for the rest of their (or his) lives. He has friends there, you could say, but he also dreams of escaping - literally - and plans to run away to meet up with his favourite wrestler who he watches on VHS tapes in the room he shares with Carl (Bruce Dern). The wrestler will solve his problems, he believes, by training him to be a powerful force in the sport, but first he needs to get out of the home, and he must do that by pulling the wool over the eyes of his carer, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who is determined he does not...

Films starring performers with conditions like Down Syndrome are few and far between, in fact films featuring the disabled in any kind of significant role don't happen along too often, which was why The Peanut Butter Falcon (Zak's assumed alter ego) garnered such a positive response when it was released, even to the extent of Gottsagen getting to present at the Oscars the following year alongside co-star Shia LaBeouf. He played Tyler, a dodgy character who takes the young man under his wing as he (Tyler) flees a crime he has just committed: he set a local crab fisherman's property alight in revenge for a beating which he may well have deserved in the eyes of this community.

Tyler has been stealing from the unsentimental (to put it mildly) John Hawkes, and therefore must be punished, but he has no intention of being caught so since Zak is of the same mindset, they make an apt pair. Gottsagen in real life had voiced his dream of being a movie star to directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz and they decided to accommodate him, having some influence in the industry, albeit just enough to concoct a low budget effort like this one (you imagine the starrier names appeared more through goodwill than earning huge salaries). Therefore the result's detractors tended to regard this as more like a product of something akin to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

The largely unacknowledged King of Down Syndrome movies is the Belgian cult item The Eighth Day from director Jaco van Dormael, though Crispin Glover cast actors with the condition for his arthouse films he showed in special screenings, but in the main if films require a performer with a mental disability they will cast an "able" actor to pretend to be so afflicted. See Dreamcatcher, which along with its other dubious choices cast Donnie Wahlberg as a character with the syndrome, which among other reasons has made it the subject of ridicule ever since it was released. This little movie proved that, if nothing else, it was possible to craft a perfectly watchable drama with a wide variety of actors of whatever ability, and Gottsagen was certainly no embarrassment in his capacity as lead.

LaBeouf was into his run of scumbag roles by this point, having made a small fortune on Transformers and attempting to redeem his previously unendearing screen persona with character parts, though here was one where his scumbag had a redeeming feature in that he accepted Zak for who he was, and was not about to consider him a villain. Zak sees himself that way because his family simply left him, so be believes he must be a bad guy for that, in the style of the wrestling he loves so much, but really this story was more of a fairy tale than anything solidly grounded in real life. The template the directors used was Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which you probably couldn't film straight from the page in the twenty-first century without acres of caveats, no matter Twain's good intentions, but here played out quite pleasingly, if implausibly. It's hard to see Tyler not being arrested within hours, never mind the other convenient developments, but it was also clear everyone thought they were doing the right thing, and for Zak, they were.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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