World Half Full
Person with disability in lead role
Critics are calling The Peanut Butter Falcon a “big-hearted picture”, “quite possibly the feel-good movie of the year”, and the “sweetest darn film of the decade”. It’s received five-star reviews, and rates 95% and 97% among critics and audiences respectively on Rotten Tomatoes. Starring Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a buddy movie with a difference. Gottsagen plays a man with Down Syndrome who has run away from a nursing facility to pursue a dream of becoming a pro wrestler. He then befriends an outlaw (LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally.
The film’s directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, wrote the film especially for Gottsagen — who has Down Syndrome himself — and were keen to tell a story that “goes beyond being a disabled story and is a story about people”. They met Gottsagen while working at Zeno Mountain Farms — a not-for-profit camp in Vermont, USA, known for working with people with and without disabilities. Gottsagen, who has studied acting since the age of three, approached Nilson and Schwartz one day to declare: “I want to be a movie star. I want to be in a feature film.”
As a result, says Kirsten Lopez, entertainment contributor for Forbes, The Peanut Butter Falcon “is a rarity in cinema: a story starring not just a person with a disability, but one that is prominent and not hidden”. Nilson recalls several Hollywood studios offering a bigger production budget if they were willing to drop Gottsagen and instead cast an A-lister (i.e. an able-bodied actor) to play the role. Although the directors could barely afford to eat at the time — "I was eating just enough food, calorically, to get by,” says Nilson — the pair resolutely refused.
“Watching the finished product,” says Lopez, “is a lesson in how Hollywood can better serve people with disabilities, both from a narrative and inclusion standpoint.” As for Gottsagen, in an interview with People magazine, the actor says: “Down Syndrome won’t stop me, I knew I could do it. It was hard sometimes, but I knew if I worked hard, I would do a good job, and I did. I’m really proud of myself.”
ABOVE Zack Gttsagen and Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon