One of the greatest powers of a good film is the ability to bring viewers into the lives of people they wouldn’t normally encounter, or even consider, in real life. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is one of these movies, shining a light on a group of people who have been forgotten by society, but who find deep connections and draw strength from each other.
What’s even better is that this movie is one of the rare major films to spotlight the life of an adult with Down Syndrome. As our society turns ever more in favor of aborting unborn babies who show any signs of major challenges, it is refreshing to see a film that focuses on a man with Down Syndrome who still has hopes, dreams, and a joie de vivre most “normal” people would envy.
“Falcon” follows the story of Zak, a 30-something man with Down Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen), who has been forced to make his home in an assisted living facility as a ward of the state in the years since his parents died. Zak obsessively watches an old VHS wrestling video from the 1980s, in which a wrestler known as the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) unleashes powerful moves against his opponents, making him Zak’s hero.
Zak wants to escape, and learn how to wrestle from the Salt Water Redneck, and he engages in a ridiculous, yet effective, plan to do so. One night, he strips down to his underwear, lathers himself in baby oil, and slides through the bars of his window.
He hides under a tarp on a small boat owned by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a shady local fisherman who illicitly fishes crabs in an area he’s not licensed to be in. When Tyler burns a large pile of equipment owned by his rivals, he is forced to run for his life, not realizing that Zak is on his boat.
The two become unlikely friends — the aimless Tyler has nowhere to go, and Zak begs him to take him down the river to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school. They are joined by a young widowed social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who has been ordered to bring Zak back to the assisted living facility but suddenly feels that perhaps Zak is best served by living his life of adventure.
The unlikely and often unpredictable events that evolve from this journey are a true delight, with “Falcon” (named after Zak’s chosen pro wrestling moniker) slowly but very surely revealing a Christian undercurrent. Not only does Tyler seek to change his ways for the better, but key songs throughout have gospel or Christ-centered lyrics without being heavy-handed, and a man they encounter on their trip speaks happily about Jesus and faith as he hosts them for a night before baptizing Zak in a river the next day.
“Falcon” has an incredible sweetness at its core, which should overcome its frequent use of relatively mild foul language. The relationship that develops between Tyler and Eleanor is chaste and touching to behold, and there’s a real sense of triumph as Zak starts to realize his dreams.
One of the film’s producers is Special Olympics chief Tim Shriver, ensuring this as a positive portrayal of a mentally challenged man who wants to make friends and live life with some sense of independence and freedom. These universal desires make the movie eminently relatable.
Overall, this is a truly terrific movie that provides fresh entertainment in a summer overrun by sequels and superheroes. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is highly recommended as one of the best movies of the year.
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