At the finish line of the Nov. 6, 2018, New York City marathon, spectators were moved to see an exhausted man proudly complete his 4:41 hour marathon with a sleeping infant in his arms. In a touching image that quickly went “viral” on electronic media, runner Robby Ketchell trekked the final steps of the race carrying his then 7-month-old son Wyatt, who has Down syndrome. As Wyatt’s mother Mayra Ketchell wrote shortly thereafter to NBC New York, “Wyatt was born premature and spent the first 67 days of his life in the NICU. He has been through more in his seven months than most people go through in a lifetime, and he will be having open-heart surgery in April. He is the best, bravest person we know, and running the marathon for him was so important for our family.”
This year, Mrs. Ketchell published “A Promise to My Son for Down Syndrome Awareness Month.” Speaking perhaps for every mother of the approximately 6,000 babies who are born with Down syndrome each year, Ketchell wrote: “I want you to know that when you gave me the gift of being your mom, you actually gave me 47 gifts, one in each chromosome of your perfect being... I promise to love you and all of your chromosomes endlessly, to celebrate you not just during this important month but always. I promise to be your voice until you can find your own. I promise to make sure you are not just heard, but understood. I promise to shout your worth and teach you to shout it yourself — from rooftops and mountaintops and islands and oceans.”
Such resounding affirmation of the human person — with Down syndrome or otherwise — echoes quietly through cornfield, wood, river and stream in the recently released film, The Peanut Butter Falcon, created by writer-director team Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz and produced by Cincinnati native David Thies. The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of a man named Zak (actor Zack Gottsagen) who has Down syndrome and who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler in the likeness of his hero, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
After escaping from the threadbare Britthayven Retirement Home in North Carolina where he is cared for by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak encounters a troubled, low-level outlaw named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), likewise on the lam. With Zak’s dreamed-of wrestling school located along the way of Tyler’s intended journey south to Florida, the two reluctantly begin what at least one reviewer has called a “Mark Twain-style adventure” — with rivers, boat, raft and all.
Perhaps somewhat predictable in its general storyline of forced companionship turned happy collusion and, eventually, deep friendship, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a heartwarming — and, in spots, heartrending — celebration of the dreams and potential of a young man with Down syndrome. At the same time, the film is not so much about persons with disabilities as it is about freedom and identity for two very different young men: one in need of self-forgiveness and renewed life purpose, the other in search of greater autonomy, family and the opportunity to be, as Zak says, “a hero.”
The real story behind the making of the film is endearing in its own right: Writer-Director team Nilson and Schwartz first met Zack Gottsagen some eight years ago in Venice, California. With a determination worthy of his wannabe wrestler character, Gottsagen urged the duo to make a movie that would allow him to fulfill his dream of being an actor. Film production began in Georgia in 2017 and various review articles have described the authentic friendship that developed between the newcomer Gottsagen and nationally recognized actor Shia LaBeouf.
Describing how Gottsagen came into his life at a much-needed time, LaBeouf told one Hollywood tabloid , “[Zack’s] one of the purest [people]. He is the purest person I’ve ever met.... everything he’s saying is coming from a very sincere place. I really needed sincerity in my life, and he happened to be that vessel.” Noting that both he and Gottsagen came from homes with absent fathers, LaBeouf added: “We just connected on a lot of levels, more than just the role and all that, but also the fact that we both love this [acting] craft a lot and had dreams toward this thing forever. And I was hyper-aware that this was his shot and his opportunity and made as much space as possible. And he made space for me ‘cause I came in a little crooked. And, you know, we just loved on each other.”
Whether one has 46 or 47 chromosomes, there probably isn’t a person in the world who, at one time or another, doesn’t feel like he or she is “a little crooked.” The beauty of The Peanut Butter Falcon is its compelling reminder of the power of love, transparency and friendship to help each of us feel a bit less isolated, a bit less broken.
Marya Ketchell promised to show her son Wyatt and “the entire world that a little bit different is actually exceptional. That you are exceptional.” Indeed. As the Nilson-Schwartz film ends and credits begin to roll, viewers hear the lovely song, “Running So Long (House a Home),” and are duly reminded that none of us is as broken as some (even ourselves) made us out to be.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is rated PG-13 for occasional profanity and violence (e.g., bloody fistfights), and exposed male buttocks during scenes suggesting outdoor urination.
Teresa Donovan is an associate scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, native Cincinnatian, longtime fan of running, and newly made fan of Zach Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf.