The Peanut Butter Falcon and Doing Disability Differently in Film

Image Description. Poster for the Peanut Butter Falcon. The three stars Tyler (Shia LaBoeuf), Zak (Zack Gottsagen), and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) are on a wooden raft while Zak poses with a gun on a river with the movie's title at the bottom.
Image Description. Poster for the Peanut Butter Falcon. The three stars Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), Zak (Zack Gottsagen), and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) are on a wooden raft while Zak poses with a gun on a river with the movie’s title at the bottom.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a beautiful artistically shot film that manages to humanize Zak, its main character who has down syndrome in a way most films with disabled characters.

Far to often disabled characters are plot devises who serve as objects of inspiration or pity and fail to show the audience a realistic and humanized portrayal of the disability experience. Peanut Butter Falcon on the other hand manages to portray Zak as a well rounded character with agency within a plot that at times depends on a degree of unreality. This is definitely a film that stands apart in its ability to portray depth and truth through a story that is at times dreamlike.

The story follows Zak who has been living in a retirement home as the only nonelderly resident. He resents not only his inappropriate living environment but also the fact that he is denied the chance to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. He escapes the retirement home and teams up with Tyler, a small time criminal on the run, to get to a wrestling training academy.

The retirement home sends idealistic care aide Eleanor to retrieve Zak and the three embark on an adventure.

The film has a set up that could so easily have fallen into old and harmful tropes. Yet it subverts all those stereotypes while maintaining a light and positive tone.

The film starts out strong by not sacrificing the humanity of the senior citizens who also inhabit the retirement home with Zak. They are his frequent co-conspirators in his escape attempts. They understand that he doesn’t belong there as much as he does.

The movie also deals beautifully with the reality that a person can discriminate and do harm to disabled people without intending to and that good intentions can still reinforce and be dehumanizing. Eleanor starts out aware of the unfairness of Zak’s life in the retirement home and sees herself in opposition to the system that forces him to be there but she doesn’t start to see how her own treatment of Zak is condescending and dehumanizing until after he escapes and refuses to return with her.

The movie has no simple answers for complex issues. There are moments of triumph and disappointment. This is a story that very much leaves you with the knowledge that the characters still have to live their lives after the final credits roll. Everything isn’t wrapped up in a nice bow.

One of my favourite aspects of the film is what many describe as a “modern Mark Twain adventure” (Even the characters in the film). The story manages to evoke the tone of a tall tale well told while still keeping the realness of the characters intact.

When I criticize bad portrayals of disability, I am often accused of wanting some kind of unobtainable perfection in representation. I, however, just want good stories told well. The Peanut Butter Falcon achieves this in spades. Star Zach Gottsagen gives a stellar performance and has amazing chemistry with his costars. The film manages to avoid all to common disability tropes easily without it feeling like you are being beaten over the head with a moral lesson.

All you have to do is want to tell a better and bigger story.

I hope that more stories about disabled characters will be given this kind of depth and respect in the future.

I highly recommend the film.

Here is the trailer.

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