The Peanut Butter Falcon is a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn that captures a warm reckless American spirit whilst seating the story firmly in the scant Southern landscape that inspired Mark Twain.
Zak has Downs Syndrome and lives in a care home after being dumped by his family. He is 22 and wildly out of place in the geriatric facility and knows it. The film opens on his escape plot.
The first couple of scenes capture Zak’s ingenuity and play out in a comedic tone as we see Zak bribe an old woman to choke on her food so that he can escape the care home unseen. He gets taken back to his room but the tone of the film is set:
Zak is a three-dimensional protagonist and the story will not evolve around his disability but his determination to escape and live out his dream of professional wrestling.
The film then introduces his supporting actor, Tyler, played by a bearded leathery Shia LaBeouf, who has to make a quick getaway after setting fire to the equipment of the owners of the estuary where he illegally fishes.
The three men are now chasing Tyler who has to disappear. The two characters meet and Tyler decides to take Zak to the wrestling school on his way down to Florida.
The story follows a simple plot and in many parts is predictable, however, wide shots of rolling grassland, glassy marshes and the outer banks of North Carolina capture the slow, seedy atmosphere of backwater America and paints a broiling late summer that is timeless in its implication of possibility.
In the Mark Twain tale, Huck Finn travels down to Mississippi with an escaped enslaved man named Jim, and slowly the two of them become friends despite the social barriers that separate them.
In this retelling, the question of who is the outcast jumps between Zak and Tyler as we see points of social rejection for both of them.
The immediate assumption is that Zak, an escaped disabled ward of the state, embodies the character of Jim, however, we see Zak’s carefree attitude and naivety resemble the titular Huck more than the jumpy, world-weary Tyler.
This rejection of the immediate roles destabilises the expectation placed on disabled characters to take on the misunderstood, hard-bitten side character who is empowered only through their association with the lead, but instead we see Zak thrive unbothered as he repeatedly asserts “but I’m strong” when advocating for his wrestling ambition.
Yet, much like Huck, Tyler degrades his new friend through discriminatory slurs whilst maintaining his use of them as a defence to protect Zak against those who may perceive him to be just a “retard” or a “n****” in Huck’s case.
The second half of the film is when the infantilising ableism really picks up when Zak’s case worker finds and joins the two men on their adventure.
Suddenly the brotherly dynamic is disrupted and the budding romance between Tyler and Eleanor forces Zak into the role as their over-indulged child.
As the film ends on the dulcet tones of Bluegrass singer Sara Watkins and the metaphor heavy open road we are given a new hope, however, we worry that Zak has moved from a ward of the state to the ward of Tyler and Eleanor without any of the self-sufficiency he once aspired to have, and the haunting roots melody reminds us of Jim’s hope to be a free man, even when freedom does not equal autonomy.
Source of Image – Seth Johnson/Roadside Attractions, Armory Films