Fair warning - language in the quotes from Esquire.
It's rare that I would plug a new original movie sight unseen, but from everything I have read and heard, I am anxiously desiring to see The Peanut Butter Falcon.
The film is a modern re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn, which follows a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from his care home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. It is receiving a lot of praise.
Variety called it a "feel-good niche indie with its priorities in the right place." The Rotten Tomatoes consensus calls it "a feel good adventure brought to life by outstanding performances." It received the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at South by Southwest this year. It has been described as the type of movie that does not get made anymore.
Much of the coverage of the film has centered on newcomer Zack Gottsagen. Through the filmmaking experience, Gottsagen has emerged as a shining star. As Relevant Magazine wrote, "Like his character in the movie, Gottsagen has Down syndrome. Also, like his character in the movie, he's a big personality and exudes optimism and encouragement."
And every article on the subject has written about how this personality, optimism, and encouragement impacted everyone he worked with. The writer-director duo behind the film, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, talked about how Gottsagen was very grounding, always in the present. They described how he would grab the megaphone at the end of the day and give out compliments. How he would demand a group hug from the team. And how all eighty to one hundred people on set would do it.
Gottsagen had an even bigger impact on costar, Shia LeBouf. LeBouf had lobbied to play a part in the film before even seeing the script, pulled in by a clip of Gottsagen's performance. To say LeBouf was working through issues at the time is an understatement. His time on the film coincided with a very publicized incident in Savannah that resulted in his arrest.
Gottsagen had been a huge fan of LeBouf, dating back to his Even Steven days. When Gottsagen learned of LeBouf's arrest, he was angry, frustrated, and soured on the idea of working with him. Shia would open up about this time in a brutally honest interview with Esquire.
"The morning he got out of jail, LaBeouf attended a small party for the cast and crew, and no one brought up what had happened. 'Everybody was pussyfooting around it,' he says. As soon as Gottsagen arrived, he beelined for LaBeouf and sat on the floor, and there LaBeouf joined him. They talked for twenty minutes. Gottsagen told him, 'You’re already famous. This is my chance. And you’re ruining it.'
'To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life,' LaBeouf says. ' 'Cause I was still fighting. I was still on my "Look how fast they released the videos! They don’t release these!" Just on my defense-mechanism-fear garbage. And you can’t do that to him. He keeps it one thousand with you, and that shit doesn’t even make sense to him. Zack can’t not shoot straight, and bless him for it, ’cause in that moment, I needed a straight shooter who I couldn’t argue with.' He says their conversation continued on set: 'We were getting ready to do a scene and Zack said, "Do you believe in God?" And I thought, No fuckin’ way are you about to explain God to me, Zack.' LaBeouf tries to keep it together. His voice jumps an octave. 'Zack said, "Even if He’s not real, what does it hurt?"' He turns his face away. He takes a breath and continues.
'I don’t believe in God... But did I see God? Did I hear God? Through Zack, yeah. He met me with love, and at the time, love was truth, and he didn’t pull punches. And I’m grateful, not even on some cheeseball shit trying to sell a movie. In real life. That motherfucker is magical.' LaBeouf’s posture is all right angles, as if the memory alone has straightened him. 'Zack
allowed me to be open to help when it came.'
When LaBeouf first checked into rehab, he was asked about the pop—the moment your head gets pulled out of your ass and clarity washes
over you. 'For me,' he says, 'it was Zack.' LaBeouf is not broken but on the other side of brokenness, and he’s looked back at the wreckage for long enough. It’s time to go home. He rises, puts his hands in his pockets, and walks out
from under the shade of the crab-apple tree."
Both LeBouf and costar Dakota Johnson made a point of telling the directors just how positive, how special Gottsagen made the set. "Just so you know, it's not always like this. Sets aren't always like this."
That quote wrecked me, it really did. It forced me to come to grips with an overwhelming question:
Don't get me wrong, I know why sets, why jobs can be horrible. This person can't get along with this other person. This person's method acting drives this actor's sensibilities crazy. Actor in the supporting role feels they should have been cast as the lead and wants to prove it. This director is controlling and manipulative. And so on and so on.
But truly, why is having a positive experience at work, especially in the arts, such a rarity? Why is it a surprise to find a set that is affirming, that is positive, that is joyful?
Are we that vain? Are our egos that fragile?
Why do place the onus on "special" people to make that happen? For it to either be the place of the rare saints like Mister Rogers, or of those who we would often treat dismissively in other scenarios?
Why do we shirk our responsibility to love our neighbor? To show that we serve a better kingdom? To show that there is a better way? To be fully present?
"If there is nothing but what we make in this world, let us make good."
Maybe it's time to realize that the onus is on us, each and every singular one of us, to make our environments better. That our calling is to be the one that makes the set, our job, our classroom, etc. the place that people say "it's not always like this. This is special."
That it's time to own up to changing our own environments or getting out of those we cannot change. If we are stuck in a job that we cannot improve and that is only draining and not rewarding in some way, that it's time for a change. For something different.
It's time for us to make good.