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The Bottom Line: On Disability And Wrestling In The Peanut Butter Falcon
Logan Kenny , October 21st, 2019 12:10

The charming likability of The Peanut Butter Falcon takes on new meaning when its specific story of ambition and resilience finds a real-life counterpart, finds Logan Kenny

I didn’t grow up with wrestling. In Scotland in the 2000s, kids in my class had wrestling trading cards that they passed around, I went to homes where there were boxes of old action figures and memorabilia lying erratically around the house. My cousin used to watch it religiously and I distinctly remember the sounds of wrestlers colliding against the mat echoing across his house. Enough people I knew played video games that I eventually got a copy of one of them to kill some of the long nights at home. I was drawn to the madness, the frenzied action and larger than life characters. I played the games a lot, even years after my friends had moved on to competitive sports. I kept up to date with WWE for years after that but never watched the programmes – we never had the TV channel, or the money for monthly PPVs. There was never an immediacy for me to discover the medium fully, I was perfectly content picking up a game every so often, and spending my time with cinema and music.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is about Zak (Zach Gottsagen), a disabled person with Down syndrome, holding onto the dream of becoming a wrestler as a thought of comfort in a difficult place. He feels alone in a world that often doesn’t accept him, and yet he never loses sight of the ambition that keeps his heart racing. Wrestling offers solace for him when he’s struggling to sleep, rewinding and replaying an old tape of a wrestler that he loves. He draws images of wrestling iconography and brings up his passion to anyone that will listen. It means everything to him. He will not give up, no matter how easy it would be to stay still. When I saw the premise for the film, I immediately teared up. It seemed impossible that a film not made by myself could capture such a specific emotional experience. It reminded me that my experiences are not completely singular.

As an autistic person, I latched onto art from a young age in order to cope with the world around me. While I could make friends, I found the process and structure of socialising in and out of school to be extremely stressful, so I isolated myself. I had supportive parents who recognised my passion for movies. They let me watch whatever I liked, hoping that I wouldn’t internalise any toxic behaviour. Movies became my lifeline for several years. I learned how to understand other people’s emotions, even the ones so far apart from my own, and the basics of body language. School felt like it wasn’t teaching me anything but new ways to hate myself, so I lost myself in other worlds.

Eventually, living as an autistic teenager in a world not designed for me took a toll on my mental and physical health. I had migraines for years, but the remainder of my body started to experience severe pain as well. A few years ago, stress and fear caused me to have pain moving. I was unable to stand from my bed without experiencing excruciating agony. My head was on fire for three months, anxieties plagued my migraine-addled brain. My school didn’t have a system to support kids who couldn’t physically make it into class, so my academics suffered. Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me. I didn’t find out until years later that my body was reacting to a toxic environment. I was physically preventing myself from leaving my safe place and being put somewhere that would trigger me to the point of unconsciousness. It got to the point where I couldn’t really watch movies anymore. It was hard losing that attachment to a medium that you love. Then wrestling came back into my life.

I randomly watched a wrestling video one day and was immediately drawn to it. Stories were told through pure action, and every emotion and narrative beat was generated from the ways performers expressed themselves physically. I liked the idea of a live crowd accentuating the work of the wrestlers, getting emotionally invested in these spandex-clad athletes who would devastate each other’s bodies. There was something about it that made me realise that I had no blockade from properly experiencing it myself, that I had the power to fully understand this artform. It helped save my life that summer. I watched Sasha Banks vs Bayley at Takeover Brooklyn and fell completely in love. The brutality and history behind every kick and strike exchange immediately appealed to me. This led to NXT, and searching up inspiration for these women’s work. I cried watching Eddie Guerrero, a man who died when I was young, win his first world championship at No Mercy 2004.

I was drawn to the reactions of Shawn Michaels in the 2010 Royal Rumble, who, after seeing his dream collapsing in front of him, refuses to process his defeat and lashes out. He hits referees, tries to force his way back into the match and eventually realises that there’s no way for him to change time. The camera lingers on his heartbroken face and the gradual movement of his body to the back of the arena. It connected with me on a deep level, I cared about this character that I knew almost nothing about. It reminded me of myself when confronted with bad news I had no control over. That sensation, the act of caring involuntarily about someone, is the element of wrestling that interests me the most.

At its finest, the melodrama of wrestling is as powerful as great theatre or film, opening up the souls of the crowd to care about everything. I would scream my heart out for my favourite wrestlers to win, cry over them when they got hurt, get angry online whenever anything ridiculous would happen. It helped my feelings of depression and trauma to see these people take unfathomable amounts of offence and keep getting back up to fight back, even when the odds felt impossible. The athleticism and the varying body types were inspirational at a time where I couldn’t move my arms without hurting. Wrestling gave me hope that I could wrestle one day, when my body was better, that there was no reason I couldn’t tell stories and take bumps the way that these superstars did. Years after that dream in my head, I started my own wrestling training.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a rare film about disability that doesn’t treat it like an impediment. Zak’s Down syndrome has its obvious drawbacks, many people don’t understand his disability, but the people who love him never treat him like he’s flawed. He never once shows a desire to be someone else, he is content in his own existence. Zak believes in himself and the power of wrestling so much that he’s willing to risk everything he knows for a shot of being like his heroes. Other works would have made more of his physical limitations, focusing on the strength of his body over the strength of his character. This film is different, as it’s not interested in making a faux inspirational story about someone overcoming their body, but instead living within it, and using their dedication to achieve greatness. It’s a seemingly minor change of focus, but one that means everything to disabled viewers.

The support Zak receives from the people around him is fundamental to the film’s success. It would have been easy to make his underdog story plagued by negativity, with people undervaluing him before the inevitable proof of his ability. Instead, it shows the key to people like us being allowed to keep ourselves hoping, the beautiful reality of having someone love us for ourselves. From the support of his roommate (Bruce Dern) to the affection of his nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) he is uplifted by the people around him even when they don’t understand his actions. It reminded me of the support from my father when I told him I wanted to try wrestling for myself, how instead of being devalued, I was encouraged. He took me to my first training session and celebrated with me on the ride home when I shared that it felt right in that building. My body ached for days afterwards and it reminded of those moments where I thought I’d never move again. I felt pride that I hadn’t experienced before, like I’d done something major for my past self.

What ensures the film’s success is the relationship between Zak and his unlikely companion Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) who reluctantly agrees to take him to a wrestling school far across the American south. The beauty of their dynamic stems from the fact that there isn’t hatred or dismissal before love. Tyler is irritated by Zak for about five minutes before learning to enjoy his company and develop an intense emotional attachment to him. Tyler becomes invested in promising the dream of wrestling to Zak, struggling with overwhelmed frustration at anything that could prevent his friend from seeing the profession he loves. There is a sincere joy that Tyler brings to Zak’s life, unwavering support of his dreams. No one could ever cheer him on louder.

There is a beautifully vulnerable sequence that Zak and Tyler share around the film’s halfway point. Zak invites Tyler to his birthday party, the nicest compliment he is capable of giving. Instead of shrugging it off or undermining it, Tyler is moved to tears by how he’s made someone’s life better, how a person he values wants him present. He smiles and cries into Zak’s chest for a minute, grateful to have finally found another brother. There are silent cuts to a world before these men had encountered each other, failures and losses from Tyler’s past, the ghost of a dead relative consuming his life. But for now, he is loved and safe, which is the feeling I cling onto every day. It is a testament to the work of Gottsagen and LaBeouf that sincerity feels natural, their chemistry is magnetic and the commitment both men have to the subversion of character tropes is crucial.

The most notable aspect of the film is the way it portrays professional wrestling. Zak’s attachment comes from the embrace of a specific character, the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). He loves the way this man works. When Zak reaches his old wrestling school, he expects to see him in his gear, not recognising the person behind the costume. It makes for a stunning moment, when the adoration of a disabled fan makes this old wrestler want to put on a final show, just to make him smile. You can see the spark in his eyes once he recognises that someone remembers him. So many people come together, from Eleanor to Tyler to the Redneck himself to ensure that Zak gets this one match. It doesn’t matter that Zak isn’t the best wrestler in the world, or that his first opponent is an old man (Jake the Snake Roberts) who doesn’t care about his health. What matters is that he’s finally in the place he belongs, surrounded by people chanting his name. By the closing stages of his match, he takes a step that no one but Tyler ever thought he could, and makes someone fly as the crowd roars for him.

Wrestling is a painful thing to love. Many of my favourite wrestlers have had to retire, bodies damaged beyond repair. There is a constant presence of danger and regardless of how safe you are, your body will be wrecked after years of fighting. It is frequently frustrating and initially hard to get into. It is melodrama and sport combined, a furious blend of realism and artifice clashing for a crowd’s enjoyment. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. It is everything I love about art mixed with everything that drives me crazy about it, and it has given me so much hope over the years. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the kind of film that understands the beautiful side of professional wrestling, and the kind to inspire so many disabled people to follow their dreams as well.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is in cinemas now