Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
“Are you a good guy or a bad guy?” Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has escaped from a nursing home, asks Tyler, an expert fisherman and small-time thief on the run in The Peanut Butter Falcon (Roadside) — a film in theaters that has snagged a 95% rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
Tyler hesitates before choosing a “good guy” persona for himself. But that hesitation hints at a sensitive soul stirring within a man fallen on hard times.
Both are looking for a second chance, and become improbable buddies in this unusual Mark Twain-inspired adventure accompanied by Gospel-inspired country music.
The two have conflicting goals: Zak dreams of being a pro wrestler. He is bent on finding his idol, pro wrestler Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and getting trained up for his own career in the sport.
Tyler needs to remain a step ahead of a crook bent on punishing him for stealing his crab pots and destroying his fishing gear.
In time, these concerns take a back seat to their friendship, nurtured by a deepening sense of their common humanity.
It’s rare these days for a film to deal so honestly with what makes us human: our hunger for dignity and love, the prick of our skittish conscience, and the daily struggle to fill our bellies and make ends meet.
What’s so special about The Peanut Butter Falcon is that the character of Zak is played by a professional actor, Zack Gottsagen, 34, who has Down syndrome.
Gottsagen has earned rave review for his groundbreaking lead performance, in a film that also features Transformers star Shia LaBeouf, as Tyler, and Dakota Johnson, as a young woman who has been directed by the nursing home to bring Zak back to the facility.
At the movie’s premier last month, co-directors and writers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz said they had written the script with Gottsagen in mind for the lead character.
“We sat down for a year and worked on the script and tried to build something that would show him in the best light possible for who he is — a human being with hopes and dreams and goals who has the capacity to love even deeper than I do,” Nilson told Reuters.
During a separate interview, published this month, Nilson said that Zack’s lead role in a feature film was a new moment for American film and for people with intellectual disabilities.
“I think it's really common for an actor like that to be maybe a B or C character, somebody who just pipes in with a little wisdom, but that's it. And we were like, no, we're gonna write something starring Zack,” said Nilson.
“I love Rain Man. I think it’s a great movie. I love Forrest Gump. I think it’s a great movie. Those are actors playing a disability. And I think this is the first time an audience really gets to see [an actor with an intellectual disability] doing it for real.”
Reportedly, Zack’s mother, Shelley, 64, was an early advocate for her son, who developed a passion for acting as a child, according to People magazine.
When Zack’s application to a performing arts magnet school in Palm Beach, Florida, was turned down, his mother filed a lawsuit, asserting that “he should not be denied access due to disability.”
Zack, who “lives in his own apartment, supplemented his income by working at a local movie theater until it closed last month and took small acting roles.”
People Magazine also reported that Nilson and Schwartz decided to develop a script for him after viewing, Becoming Bulletproof, a 2014 film about actors with disabilities.
The film’s lead actress, Dakota Johnson, 29, told People: “Working with Zack was the most honest and loving experience I’ve had with another actor. He’s pure light, and he totally changed my heart.”
Readers who haven’t seen The Peanut Butter Falcon might dismiss her comment as the kind of routine PR spin that typically accompanies a film launch. But if you have seen the movie, her remark rings true.
The bond between the characters feels both “honest and loving.” And at the center of this winsome story of redemption is Zak, who escapes the nursing home by stripping down to his underwear and slathering his body with oil so he can slip out of a small opening in the facility.
Dressed for much of the film in little more than underpants, Zak could easily become an object of ridicule. But his vulnerability and warmth disarm Tyler, and viewers, too, will feel the healing power of a friendship offered without conditions.
“People think that someone with Down can’t do things,” Zack told People. “I want to prove them wrong. If they watch me in a movie, maybe they’ll think that they can do anything too. Maybe someone else with a disability will follow their dreams because of me.”
Note: This film has some bad language, and may not be appropriate for young children.