by Alvin G. Burstein
This 2019 movie is a striking contrast to the currency of splatter films, special effects and shock. It is a frankly feelgood film with a focus on character and motivation. Many of its reviewers characterize it as a riff on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the Twain classic Huck and Jim, a Black slave, become companions on a raft voyage down the Mississippi. Huck is fleeing an abusive father, Jim, his owner’s threat to sell him to an exploitative slave trader. On their voyage, they encounter a host of characters. Huck struggles with the conflict between his liking and admiration for Jim and his enmeshment in the slave culture of blacks as property. Jim, throughout, demonstrates characteristics of generosity and loyalty to his friend. Two of the central features of the book are its implied critique of the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the carnivalesque roster of characters it features.
The Peanut Butter Falcon, too, is set in the deep South, and much of the action takes place on a raft on the river. Two of its central characters are, like Huck and Jim, trying to escape. Zak is a Down syndrome man who has been inappropriately confined in a nursing home for the aged for several years. His companion, Tyler, is a small-time outlaw, trying to escape the kangaroo court consequences of his misdeeds. Both are prisoners. Zac, of assumptions that his ambition to become a professional wrestler is foolish, Tyler, of his feeling that the grip of hard scrabble poverty and the guilt he feels about his brother’s death are inescapable.
Like Huck and Jim, Zac and Tyler forge a strong bond. The two companionships are alike in that they have a nominal leader, Tyler in the first case, and Huck in Twain’s account. And in both cases the other partner, Zak, in the movie, and Jim, in the book, is portrayed as intellectually limited, but at the same time admirably loyal. And, like Huck and Jim, Tyler and Zac meet an array of striking characters: Winki, a blind preacher; The Salt Water Redneck, a decrepit wrestling coach; Ratboy, a vindictive pursuer; and Sam, a fifty-year-old pro wrestler; to mention a few. A critical difference is that Zak and Tyler are joined by a third companion on their voyage. Eleanor, the social worker who had been working with Zak at the nursing home, and who was assigned to bring him back, decides, at least initially as a strategic ploy, to join the duo.
While Twain’s critique is aimed at the institution of slavery, it seems clear the movie wants to bring into question the issue of personhood for those with Down syndrome. Assuming a degree of intellectual limitation, to what degree should they be entitled to pursue chosen goals? The British 2005 Mental Capacity Act states that anyone over the age of sixteen must be presumed able to make decisions for themselves absent a court finding about that individual to the contrary. The World Health Organization takes a similar position. United States laws are unclear. The movie raises the question of whether Zak should have the freedom to try to become a professional wrestler.
At the risk of verging on a spoiler, I will reveal that Eleanor decides to join Tyler and Zak on a permanent basis, forming a ménage à trois. The movie avoids considering the Oedipal complications of Zak’s finding Tyler and Eleanor’s bedroom door closed to him. How will that affect the brotherhood? And more generally, what special questions, if any, should arise with regard to the sexual interests of those with Down syndrome?
Oh, and about the movie’s title—you will have to see the film.