There’s something to be said about finding a movie that will make you laugh and cry at the same time.
In the case of Peanut Butter Falcon, that something to be said is this: For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’ve seen my brother portrayed on-screen in a character with a disability. That might not sound like much, but having grown up with a younger brother with Down syndrome, that is a huge deal to me and so many other families of people with disabilities.
The entertainment industry’s depiction of disability has long been considered problematic by those in the special needs community — according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, in 2016 more than 95% of characters with disabilities in TV shows were played by able-bodied actors.
Amy Allison, Chief Operating Officer for the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City, says storylines for these characters can promote harmful stereotypes, too.
“In the past, representation has been focused on the happy loving aspect of it or struggling to overcome one’s disability, and I’m not a fan of that,” Allison says. “It doesn’t help people with Down syndrome — they’re not trying to overcome their condition.”
Of course, it’s not all bad. Laura Cravens, the associate director of Boone County Family Resources, says she sees portrayals of characters with disabilities moving in the right direction in film and TV. It’s about showing disability respectfully, she says, “not ignore it because that’s part of their life, but not make it the center of their being.”
Still, what made Peanut Butter Falcon so different that I was left dabbing at the corners of my eyes with a tissue Friday night?
Peanut Butter Falcon follows Zak (Zack Gottsagen), an adult with Down syndrome who wants to become a pro wrestler. After managing to escape the nursing home where he lives, he runs into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), an outlaw, and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), the nursing home employee in charge of finding Zak. Eventually, the two decide to help him make his way to a wrestling school, forming an unlikely trio that’s as hilarious as it is unique.
I’d heard about the movie months ago from an article in a digital disability magazine and ads on social media. I was curious about the movie, of course, but I was also hesitant. A buddy comedy centered around a character with Down syndrome and starring the sometimes-chaotic personality of Shia LaBeouf felt like it could easily be a recipe for a wasted $10 on a movie ticket.
But when the movie was given a limited release in the U.S. last month, I suddenly couldn’t stop hearing about it. It was being talked about on social media and praised by my friends in the disability community. The movie had become almost a ritualistic greeting among some of the people I talked to, with each of us asking the other if they’d seen the movie yet and then lamenting that no, we hadn’t yet, but we really wanted to and maybe we’d go next weekend.
My tipping point was when Ragtag Cinema announced it would start screening the film beginning on Sept. 6. The theater had received a number of requests for screenings of the movie on their website and on social media, Barbie Banks, the director of the cinema, said.
“Typically, our programmer, who is the person who picks the films, kind of has a running list of films that we know are being released, and we inquire about those with the distributor,” Banks said. “But this one, we really pursued it because we got so many requests for it.”
Now, having finally seen the film and Gottsagen's and LaBeouf's dynamic on screen, I understand what makes this film different. Although I was tearing up with the rest of the audience when Zak called Tyler and Eleanor his family, I was also tearing up when Eleanor explained how the state had become Zak’s legal guardian — it’s a process my family became familiar with only a year and a half ago.
When the rest of the audience was laughing at Zak’s insistence on a secret handshake with Tyler, I was in awe of how much it reminded me of my own handshake with my brother. For me, Zak’s complaints about his feet hurting, his mannerisms when he was nervous, his infatuation with one particular video were not just unique to his character. They were exactly the kinds of things my brother would do, and they are the small details Hollywood can often brush over by painting disabled characters with too broad a brush in the name of inclusion or creating an “uplifting” story for able-bodied audiences to enjoy.
As the credits started to scroll and the lights came back on, the audience member who sat next to me, Erin Bax, said she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a character with a disability portrayed like this. Meanwhile, I left simply hoping there would be more movies like this one to come.
Ragtag Cinema will be showing Peanut Butter Falcon every night until Thursday, Sept. 19.