This piece was written for CLTure.org.
When Zack Gottsagen first met Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, he dreamt of becoming a movie star. Nilson and Schwartz, two friends volunteering at a camp for actors with disabilities, knew it was a long shot. After all, Hollywood is hardly known for being kind to actors with disabilities– particularly those with Down syndrome.
Refusing to be deterred, Gottsagen tasked his new friends Nilson and Schwartz with creating a role tailor-made for him, despite the fact that neither had any experience in the film industry.
“Essentially, I’m paraphrasing here, he was like, ‘Get your shit together boys, we’re gonna make a movie,’” Nilson said. “We went to the library and checked out a bunch of books to learn how to write movies, and that’s what we did.”
Now, five years later, the trio’s dream has come true. Together Nilson and Schwartz co-wrote and directed The Peanut Butter Falcon, with Gottsagen front and center– and it’s one of the year’s best films.
Set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, The Peanut Butter Falcon follows two wanderers as they cross paths while traveling down the coast. After escaping from his nursing home, Zak (Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, finally sets out to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Along the way, he runs into Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a small town outlaw trying to escape the vengeful fisherman he’s wronged, as well as his traumatic past. Tyler is headed to Florida and agrees to let Zak tag along until they reach the professional wrestling school of the legendary Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). The two form an inseparable bond as they drift down the coast together, on the run from both the law and Zak’s caregiver, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).
The Peanut Butter Falcon is a buddy tale in the style of a Mark Twain adventure that’s driven by the budding relationship between the unlikely duo of Zak and Tyler. Simple in nature, the film doesn’t turn to massive set pieces or flashy effects, but instead allows stellar performances from LaBeouf and Gottsagen to lead the way. LaBeouf’s subtlety and Gottsagen’s unwavering charisma balance each other, as the two form a tangible connection on their journey.
The Peanut Butter Falcon’s greatest charm lies in its simplicity, something Nilson and Schwartz leaned on during their creative process. After Gottsagen charged the two with creating the film, they brainstormed how they could build a story around a lead with Down syndrome. Nilson, an Outer Banks native, found inspiration in his North Carolina roots.
“I knew the Pamlico Sound,” Nilson said. “I have a bunch of friends with boats, we just got what we could get for free and wrote to that.”
From there, the two continued to expand the story, utilizing easily accessible resources and drawing on their own personal experiences– especially when it came to developing Gottsagen’s character.
“Zack inspired a lot of the dialogue,” Schwartz said. “A lot of that stuff happened with us. We were hanging out with Zack for years and he’s like, ‘Hey guys, I don’t know if you know this, but I have Down syndrome.’ Like, that actually happened.”
Some of Nilson and Schwartz’ favorite scenes resulted from conversations just like that. In the movie, Zak bluntly tells LaBeouf’s character Tyler that he has Down syndrome, and later uses that to justify why he can’t be a hero. Tyler’s response, asking him what that has to do with being a hero; as the two lay by a fire on the beach results in one of the film’s most powerful scenes. In an industry where disabled actors are often cast aside for able-bodied replacements, Nilson and Schwartz committed to giving Gottsagen the opportunity to shine, crafting a role that wouldn’t confine him to the narratives often assigned to characters (much less actors) with Down syndrome.
“I think your job as a director is to know, not to find out, but to know what makes it right, and you just know that very quickly,” Schwartz said. “You have to be very decisive, and we knew Zack was the best person to do it.”
Despite taking home the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at South by Southwest Film Festival in March, the future isn’t guaranteed to be smooth sailing for The Peanut Butter Falcon. Even after garnering critical acclaim, Nilson and Schwartz struggled to find a distributor, with studios claiming they “didn’t know how to market” a film whose lead had Down syndrome.
“Yeah, we won South by and it felt okay,” Nilson said. “It also just felt like a false peak, and we realized how far we had to keep going.”
Eventually, Roadside Attractions acquired the film, and the movie is currently scoring a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But Schwartz knows The Peanut Butter Falcon still has a long way to go– starting with getting audiences to actually see it.
Those who do see The Peanut Butter Falcon will be treated to one of the year’s very best and sweetest films. What it may lack in originality, it more than makes up for with pure charm, managing to be wholesome, authentic and laugh-out-loud funny while still pulling off sentimental moments that never feel overdone or clichéd.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing at the Regal Manor Theater.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.