Disability is a tricky subject to tackle in any regard, even more so in the realms of fiction. The long-running cliché of abled-actors-taking-on-disabled-roles-almost-guaranteed-industry-award-winners is a cliché for a reason, epitomising the still-recurring treatment of those with a disability in the popular consciousness.
For the longest time, characters with disability populated middle-of-the-road weepies that, rather than try and speak truth to the experience and what it’s like to live within it, exist primarily to give abled audiences an open chance for cheap ‘inspiration’, a moment to reconsider their own lives through the most voyeuristic lens there is.
There will always be some that break away from the pack, though. Mary And Max would be one. Last year’s Kairos is another. And this film joins that shortlist.
Written around the filmmakers’ own relationship with budding actor Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon is as much southern-fried contemplation as it is reworking of classic American fiction. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’ script plays around with age-old Mark Twainian tropes, making for a remarkable recontextualisation.
Gottsagen’s aspiring wrestler captures the pure innocence of Huck, while Shia LaBeouf takes time away from multimedia plagiarism and existence as a living meme to give a surprisingly strong performance as a loner fisherman, whose quick-thinking echoes Tom Sawyer’s street-smarts.
And along with adept performances from Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and even rapper Yelawolf in the supporting cast, the main trio is closed out with Dakota Johnson as Zack’s carer, the Widow Douglas of the story, whose concern comes not from piety but from being part of the abled consensus.
Of course, this being one-to-one allegory would’ve been too easy, and the film’s reworking of the classic tale of vagabonds and their friction against what can charitably be called ‘civilization’, shows incredibly clarity. It takes the original themes of struggling to fit in with society and refocuses it through Gottsagen and LaBeouf characters, showing how the lives of the disabled and the wage slaves represent a sizeable amount of modern-day alienation.
In LaBeouf’s Tyler, the struggle to work and live can be sabotaged by those who think a shared suffering is reason enough to continue inflicting it on others, as shown through John Hawkes’ Duncan. And in Zack, it’s how even the most well-meaning of people can still be part of the same system that demeans and ultimate infantilises the disabled.
Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor may refrain from using the word ‘retard’, but that doesn’t make her any less guilty of holding Zack back as much as those who use it in earnest, an unfortunately common notion that rarely gets brought up in the larger conversation.
It’s a parable on the outsider, with a lot of healthy rumination of disability in the mix, but like the best efforts, it doesn’t make a big show of ‘daring to talk about it’. The Peanut Butter Falcon appeals for empathy and the humanity that exists in all, regardless of health, wealth or racial label, and rather than just telling everyone it’s doing so, it makes a greater impact by showing it.