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Down Syndrome Story is Feel-Good Movie of the Year 

click to enlarge film_peanutbutterfalcon.jpg

The Peanut Butter Falcon, starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and newcomer Zack Gottsagen, is a heartwarming summer flick that instantly becomes, and should remain with some ease, the feel-good film of the year. Centering on the friendship between a man with Down syndrome (Gottsagen) and a hard-up fisherman on the run (LaBeouf), the film borrows from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to tell a story that's both modern and age-old. While it may not do for mental disability what Huck Finn did for race, the story is nevertheless a triumph.

Falcon's success starts and ends with its cast, the beating heart of which is Gottsagen. He plays Zak, a young man who's been abandoned by his family and finds himself in a nursing home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, and nightly watches grainy videos of a small-time regional celebrity known as the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), with whom he aspires to train. Zak shares his dreams with a crusty roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern), and pleads for freedom from his nurse, Eleanor (Johnson), a woman to whom the locals refer derisively as a "college girl." That's better than what Zak is called: the dehumanizing R-word.

Nearby, Tyler (LaBeouf) is beefing with local fishermen, including one portrayed by his majesty John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), a necessary staple of rural and swampland cinema. Tyler is racked by guilt and pain from the sudden death of his older brother (Jon Bernthal), and angry at the hopelessness and directionless-ness of his life. When he sets thousands of dollars worth of gear on fire in a vengeful rage, he's got to make a dash to Florida, where he plans to start over.

On the way he meets Zak, who's on the run from the nursing home — and hiding, in his underpants, on Tyler's boat — and the two join forces. It's not long before Eleanor is on their tail, and Tyler convinces her to continue their quest with them. This merry, unlikely band promptly and continuously teach each other lessons about life and friendship on their way to see the Saltwater Redneck, who assumes the rough dimensions of the Wizard of Oz.

The story is, of course, emotionally amplified when you learn that it's not only adapted from Huck Finn, but also Gottsagen's life story. Gottsagen, 35, dreamed not of becoming a pro wrestler but a pro actor, and with his mother's tireless advocacy, enrolled in a performing arts school in Florida. Filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz saw Gottsagen in the 2014 film Becoming Bulletproof, about actors with disabilities, and were so impressed with him and his work that they built Falcon around him. One doesn't intend to patronize, but his performance in the film is a testament to its message about the extraordinary abilities of people with disabilities.

"Down syndrome won't stop me," Gottsagen told People magazine this month. "I knew I could do it. It was hard sometimes, but I knew if I worked hard, I would do a good job, and I did. I'm really proud of myself."

But the message of Peanut Butter Falcon is not empty "anyone can do anything" pap. The film often forcefully reminds us that while people with disabilities can't do everything, they are human beings who can do a lot of things, including make choices.

In one scene on the raft — just like in Huck Finn, Tyler, Zak and Eleanor find themselves floating down a river to evade their pursuers — Tyler tells Eleanor not to baby Zak, not to coddle him. Eleanor's words and actions come from a desire to protect, but they sometimes make Zak feel like a child.

"There are some things you're never gonna do," Tyler tells Zak in another fireside scene. "You're never gonna be an NBA basketball player, you're never gonna swim in the Olympics. You'd sink right to the bottom. But that's because you're all muscle. You're strong."

Scenes like this one could become overly preachy and sentimental if deployed without care. But this film isn't merely trying to be a "heartwarming tale about people with disabilities." It also happens to be a rollicking adventure flick about a couple of outlaws. And there's nothing more fun than a couple of good-natured outlaws.

A rich bouquet of supporting characters (including Dern, Hawkes, Bernthal, the rapper Yelawolf and former pro wrestler Mick Foley), a pitch-perfect folksy soundtrack and the beaches and swamps of the Outer Banks lend to Peanut Butter Falcon — named in honor of Zak's wrestling alter-ego — a folktale vibe. And like the best folktales, Nilson and Schwarts' film is one to learn from and one to savor.

The film opens Friday in wide release.

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