One of the least-expected breakout hits at this year’s SXSW Film Festival was a film by two first-time directors, described as a modern riff on a Mark Twain adventure. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” won the festival’s Narrative Spotlight audience award, and if that title isn’t self-explanatory, it has a plot that’s anything but boring.
The official synopsis from Roadside Attractions reads: “‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who runs away from a residential nursing home to follow his dream of attending the professional wrestling school of his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). A strange turn of events pairs him on the road with Tyler (LaBeouf), a small time outlaw on the run, who becomes Zak’s unlikely coach and ally. Together they wind through deltas, elude capture, drink whisky, find God, catch fish, and convince Eleanor (Johnson), a kind nursing home employee charged with Zak’s return, to join them on their journey.”
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” was written and directed by actor Tyler Nilson and short filmmaker Michael Schwartz. This is their first feature film, and announces their presence as important new voices to watch.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the film might be its casting of an actor with Down syndrome as Zak. As audiences and filmmakers fight for a more inclusive Hollywood, it’s often said that the next horizon is the accurate representation of differently-abled people. Critics have praised Gottsagen’s performance alongside Johnson and LaBeouf as adding a layer of complexity to an already rich story.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” seems to exist in the same niche another indie that bowed at SXSW this year: Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust,” another take on Americana that combines elements of the road movie with mystic Southern imagery. With their success at 2019 film festivals, this could be the start of a trend. Movie lovers can only hope.