Representation is a double-edged sword in the entertainment industry, in that it’s deeply necessary but so often handled poorly. Let’s look at queerness in television, for example. The LGBTQ community had been asking for positive representation in TV since the 50s, but they wouldn’t see any affirming gay characters until the 70s—and even then, it was decades of stereotypes, token characters, and one-off “gay episodes”. In the late 90s, Will & Grace and Ellen brought gay protagonists to TV, but they were either kept single or quickly canceled. It wasn’t until Buffy the Vampire Slayer that two members of a show’s main cast would enter a complex gay relationship. We need those watershed moments in representation—does The Peanut Butter Falcon do that for people with Down syndrome?
Not that it has to. The fact that movies with marginalized protagonists are automatically perceived as social commentary is symptomatic of the larger problem. But The Peanut Butter Falcon is more than a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn: it addresses the treatment of the mentally disabled and stars an actor with Down syndrome. The movie joined the representation conversation when its production began. But like the depiction of queer people in 20th century television, The Peanut Butter Falcon shows us that we still have a long way to go, however well-intentioned it is.
The Mark Twain-y narrative follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from his caretaker in the hopes of becoming a professional wrestler. He crosses paths with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a rough-and-tumble vagabond who decides to aid Zak in his quest. All the while, Zak’s caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is trying to track them down, because losing a human being is generally frowned upon in the caring professions. It’s an intriguing twist on a familiar story, bolstered by its central duo.
Zack Gottsagen is flat-out phenomenal. Peanut Butter Falcon’s goal is to humanize its disabled character, and Gottsagen accomplishes this nearly single-handedly: his performance is raw and honest, revealing layers of emotion through timing and physical nuance. Shia LaBeouf, now a veteran of the indie scene, feels like an understudy for whatever actor could match Gottsagen—and LeBeouf is terrific here. The movie makes a convincing case for characters with Down syndrome being portrayed by actors with Down syndrome, rather than outsourcing roles to actors of more represented demographics.
The screenplay, on the other hand, is too reductive to match the humanism of the performances. The Peanut Butter Falcon glides over the tough questions that its story raises, content to keep flashing “awww” cue cards lest the audience’s sweet tooth go unsatisfied. But there are tough questions that need addressing. The conflict between Tyler and Eleanor is predicated on a false dichotomy: the freedom-loving, life-living Tyler fights for Zak’s independence; the stuffy, bureaucratic Eleanor thinks he should be under responsible supervision. Eleanor is dismissed as a paper-pusher standing in the way of Zak’s freedom, and thus—the movie argues—Zak’s humanity.
But this conception of freedom as life without limits is insularly Western, philosophically inchoate, and particularly dishonest in this context. Peanut Butter Falcon, for all its life-affirming charm, shies too conspicuously away from the harsher realities of disability. Eleanor loses her convictions as she falls for Tyler’s barrage of creepy advances (a male screenwriter staple), but her initial grasp on the situation is accidentally the movie’s most cogent. Zak’s humanity is not defined by his ability to escapade.
It’s telling that the movie’s best moments are the ones in which reality is left behind—some scenes function purely on dream logic, and suddenly it’s easier to forgive the whimsical, adventurous trespass beyond judgment and responsibility. But the rest of the movie hews too close to reality to eschew the hard questions. Elements of The Peanut Butter Falcon work wonders to humanize its protagonist, but perhaps a less saccharine movie would’ve provided the complexity that representation demands.