It’s no secret that words are incredibly powerful—what others say to us, what we say to ourselves, what we say to others. To this end, the 2019 film The Peanut Butter Falcon makes clear that what we say to ourselves and others matters deeply, not only for who we are but for who we become.
The film focuses on the lives of two men trying to escape their present realities. Zak dreams of freedom. Because he has Down syndrome and his family has abandoned him, he is forced to live in an assisted living facility. Tyler is troubled by grief. He lost his brother and has turned to destructive behaviors to deal with his pain, stealing crabs from fellow fishermen.
When Tyler destroys the others’ fishing gear, he finds himself fleeing for his life. He discovers Zak on his boat while he’s on the run. Though he initially tries to shake Zak off, he ultimately welcomes Zak to join him for a journey that will allow Zak to meet his hero—a wrestler called The Saltwater Redneck—in North Carolina, and Tyler to escape to Florida.
The geographic journey on which the two men embark leads to a natural deepening of their relationship. Though they end up building a physical raft to help them in their travels, words are the first buoys Tyler and Zak offer each other. When they meet, Tyler does not like Zak using his name. He prefers silence. But Zak continues to use Tyler’s name, and soon enough, Tyler begins to use Zak’s name.
In each other, Tyler and Zak find strength. Conversation allows them to lean on each other for support, and what’s more, to heal from the pain of their pasts. Early in their journey, Zak shares with Tyler that he thinks of himself as “a bad guy.” This exchange makes space for both men to change the trajectories of their stories.
Zak: I wanna be a professional wrestler. And I am a bad guy.
Tyler: Why do you want to be the bad guy?
Zak: Because my family left me.
Tyler: That don’t make you a bad guy. Good guys get left, too, Zak . . . You got a good-guy heart. You can’t do shit about it. That’s just who you are. You’re a hero.
Zak: I can’t be a hero because I am a Down syndrome.
Tyler: What’s that got to do with your heart? Who told you that?
Zak: Coach, teachers.
Tyler: Your coach? What’d your coach say?
Zak: I am retarded.
Tyler: Your coach said that?
Tyler: What a shitty coach . . . Some shit you ain’t never gonna do. That’s all right. You can’t be everything . . . You’re strong, Zak. F— your coach!
I was struck by how Tyler helps Zak move from identifying himself as “a Down syndrome” (with no indication of his personhood attached) to a good guy, which acknowledges his dignity as a person. Zak ends up doing the same for Tyler by asking a question critical to Tyler’s self-perception.
Zak: Tyler, are you the good guy or a bad guy?
Tyler: I don’t know. What d’you think?
Zak: “You are a good guy.”
A shoulder to lean on
Though it’s never verbalized, viewers see through flashbacks that Tyler’s brother died in a car accident in which Tyler fell asleep at the wheel. For a good portion of the film, Tyler carries the guilt, regret, and sorrow borne of this loss. In this moment Zak’s voice becomes like the encouragement of Tyler’s dead brother, a support to lean on. Later in their journey, when Zak promises, “I am going to give you all my wishes for my birthday,” Tyler breaks down and literally leans on Zak’s shoulder as he encounters his grief.
Tyler, too, is brotherly toward Zak. Not only does he counteract negative voices in Zak’s past, but he also meets Zak in his places of doubt. One of Zak’s natural gifts is incredible physical strength. When Zak doubts this strength one evening, Tyler encourages Zak to choose a wrestling name. Zak ends up choosing The Peanut Butter Falcon, for his love of peanut butter and the strength of the falcon. This renaming restores Zak’s confidence in himself.
Partway through the film, Eleanor, Zak's friend and a caretaker at the assisted living home, arrives. She’s been searching for Zak ever since he went missing, and is solicitous about getting Zak home to safety. Horrified at Zak and Tyler’s exploits (they were almost hit by another boat and Zak has learned how to shoot a gun since he’s been away), Eleanor plans to take Zak home, until Zak throws her car keys into a nearby body of water. She then must accompany the two men on their journey. While traveling, she learns from Tyler that respect for Zak goes beyond not using abusive language (like the r-word) and that her expressions of over-care sometimes limit Zak. Tyler learns how much he doesn’t know about Eleanor’s life—that, like Tyler and Zak, she has experienced loss in the early death of her husband.
Near the end of the film, the trio finally make it to North Carolina, and begin to search out Zak’s hero, The Saltwater Redneck. I won’t spoil the ending, which involves a wrestling match featuring The Peanut Butter Falcon, a budding relationship between Tyler and Eleanor, and Tyler’s past catching up to him, but what I will say is that Zak’s language changes in a powerful way—he begins to refer to Eleanor and Tyler as his “family.” This is particularly beautiful because each of them has lost family, and each needs the others.
The film does well in creating a story in which each of the main characters has words that can heal the woundedness in the others. During a quiet scene where Zak and Eleanor are dancing and Tyler looks on them with tenderness, lyrics from Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” are playing: “Come down, come down, sweet reverence / unto my simple house . . .” In a world where we are often terribly critical of ourselves and may be tempted to use our words to hurt ourselves and others, The Peanut Butter Falcon is an invitation to not only recognize, but to reverence the good in others, to speak our appreciation and our admiration.