Out of one hundred most popular movies released in the year 2017, 2.5% of characters in those films were depicted as having a disability. Of that amount, the majority were depicted as having a physical or communicative disability. In television, a study shows that 95% of characters depicted with a disability were portrayed by actors without a disability. Very rarely are our screens graced with a feature film or series that stars a character with a disability being played by an actor with a disability. A notable exception is 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon. The film stars Zack Gottsagen, a natural-born leading man with Down’s syndrome. What makes The Peanut Butter Falcon such an important step in the right direction for disability representation in film is not just in the casting, but in how the story unfolds.
Gottsagen plays Zak, an aspiring wrestler who escapes his Virginia state-funded residential nursing home and embarks on a journey to attend his professional hero’s wrestling school in North Carolina. He is helped along the way by Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman on the run from the law, and is pursued by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), his primary caretaker at the nursing home. The scenario that plays out from here is what happens when someone acts with self-determination and pursues their goal without fear of failure– a scenario also reflected by Gottsagen’s journey with the making of the film.
In the world of disability support services, there exists a philosophy of Dignity of Risk. This philosophy has been defined as, “Dignity of risk is the idea that self-determination and the right to take reasonable risks are essential for dignity and self-esteem and so should not be impeded by excessively-cautious caregivers, concerned about their duty of care.” The duty of care mentioned is the responsibility of a caregiver or director support professional (DSP) to ensure the person they support is not causing harm to themselves or others, and is free from immediate danger. This legal obligation to protect the health, safety, and well-being of others can all too often lead people with disabilities into situations where they have overzealous caretakers nay-saying anything and everything they want to do to “protect” them from failure. Caregivers and DSPs should want to do everything they can to set up individuals for success, but to be denied the experience of failure is the antithesis of a meaningful life.
Zak starts off the film stuck in this rut. He lives in a residential facility that he does not feel he belongs in, but as Eleanor frankly explains to him, he’s there because the state put him there. He is a 22-year old man living in a nursing home typically meant for senior citizens, and he is existing in that system which is not designed for him. That’s a reality for many people with disabilities. Due to lack of access to resources, or because of entrenched bureaucracy, younger people with disabilities feel stuck in nursing homes receiving care that they could be receiving in an independent home, or in a community-integrated setting. Opportunities for self-direction are limited in long-term care facilities, and with the shadow of institutionalization hanging heavy in recent history, it is incredibly important to continue expanding freedoms of choice for people with disabilities. Frustrated with his circumstances and craving this freedom of choice, Zak escapes the nursing home and chases his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
Because of her rapport with Zak, Eleanor is tasked by her supervisor, Glen (Lee Spencer), with finding Zak before he has to report the incident to the state– something that Eleanor rightfully points out he should definitely, immediately do. Glen characterizes Zak as a helpless “boy” with no life experience and lambasts Eleanor for letting him escape; despite the severity with which he blames Eleanor, this is clearly a problem he doesn’t want to deal with directly. Eleanor finds out about the wrestling school and gets to work tracking down Zak. As much as she clearly cares more about Zak’s well-being, Eleanor still subscribes to the same belief that Zak is entirely helpless without the nursing home’s imposed structure, and that sense of panicked protectiveness is what drives her search.
It’s this belief that causes her to butt heads with Tyler once she finally catches up with Zak. Eleanor insists that Zak needs to come back to the nursing home to receive professional care, while Tyler contends that Zak is better off “living life.” While the two of them argue, Zak makes his own decision and throws Eleanor’s car keys in the surf. Forced to come along for the ride in order to keep an eye on Zak, Eleanor dotes on him constantly, but begins to see the ways in which Zak is thriving outside the nursing home. When she catches up with Glen over the phone and finds out he intends to move Zak to a more intensive facility for at-risk residents, Eleanor joins the team and helps him get to North Carolina to meet the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). She puts Zak’s self-fulfillment ahead of the rules, regulations, paperwork, and window bars she knows are waiting for Zak back in Virginia.
Not everything is squeaky clean for Zak after he leaves the nursing home. He encounters unfamiliar challenges and scary situations. He also makes friends and learns new things about himself. And, spoiler alert, he doesn’t become a professional wrestler in the end – he finds the school is closed and his hero is retired. But he gets critical life experiences that he wouldn’t have had otherwise, all while receiving natural support from the people who are with him on his journey. It’s a trajectory that mirrors Gottsagen’s journey making the film.
The Peanut Butter Falcon would not exist without Zack Gottsagen. Gottsagen trained all his life to be an actor, and met the film’s directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, at an acting camp for actors with and without disabilities. The duo were impressed with Gottsagen’s talents. Recognizing the slim chance a film starring an actor with Down syndrome would get financed in today’s Hollywood, they were convinced by Gottsagen to write a film only he could headline. Sure enough, finding backers for the film proved difficult. “Every step of the way has been a bit of an uphill battle,” says Nilson in an interview on This Morning. “We were told this would not be marketable, people would not go and see it in theaters… because he’s not a marketable face.” Which, it needs to be said, is just not true.
The team was offered money to recast Gottsagen with an A-list actor, which, ipso facto, functionally means replacing Gottsagen with an abled actor. In a way, these executives viewed the film as something they couldn’t figure out how to market. They viewed Gottsagen as a risk they were unwilling to take. Obviously, Nilson and Schwartz refused the offers and stuck with Gottsagen, whose personal drive, talent, and ambition birthed the project to begin with. Much of the film’s content is drawn from Gottsagen’s personal experiences, which is exactly the way films featuring disabilities need to be made– guided by the lived experiences of those with disabilities in cast and crew positions. Though it was a struggle to get the movie made, Gottsagen and his friends Nilson and Schwartz remained undeterred. They took the risk, and it paid off. The directors could have made a misguided attempt to protect Gottsagen from failure, but instead they invested in his ambition and they took the risk with him. It paid off.
For Zak in the film, the happy ending is a little less apparent. Though the Salt Water Redneck is done wrestling, he’s convinced to throw a local fight card for Zak as The Peanut Butter Falcon. His opponent is supposed to go easy on Zak, but during the match does not hold back and begins to beat on Zak. Despite the brutality, Zak rises to the occasion and wins the match while saving Tyler from his past catching up to him. In the final shot, Zak is heading to Florida with Eleanor and Tyler, and though we don’t know what happens next, we know that Zak is going to determine the direction of his own life, rather than have his decisions made for him under the guise of safety and protection.
As the world moves forward in furthering disability rights, film can prove to be an important tool. Through inclusive casting and informed story development, films featuring disabilities can help shift our culture and evolve mindsets. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a crystal-clear demonstration that not everything has to be successful to matter, and that the best way to support people with disabilities is to support them in taking the wheel, not buckle them in the backseat.