The Peanut Butter Falcon

I like all kinds of movies. Hollywood should adore a fan like me because I will turn out for the next tentpole blockbuster in the MCU, or a mainstream drama with major stars, or a gross out comedy or horror film. I also have a fondness for movies like our current subject, offbeat character pieces about subcultures and locations with which I am completely unfamiliar. Two examples from the last few years stick out for illustration purposes. “Moonlight“, the Best Picture winner featuring the history of a gay black drug dealer. That is not something that connects with my experience in any way but it was compelling. “Mud“, which should have been a Best Picture winner explores a Mississippi river community and the tangled relationships between adults and children, I thought it was the best film I saw in the year it came out. So in what ways are these films like “The Peanut Butter Falcon”?

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the movie and lets see if you can connect the dots. We have a Downs Syndrome, young adult, obsessive about TV style wrestling, who lives in the outer banks of North Carolina and gets involved with a disgraced crab fisherman. These are all cultures that I have had little or no contact with and my guess is most of the rest of us lack that connection as well. And this movie manages to bring us into those worlds, create a sense of empathy with those characters and build an emotional story that we will be engaged with for the time we spend with them. This is story telling rather than spectacle and I think that is as worthy of my time and money as any comic book movie would be.

Some might be put off by the presence of Shia LeBeouf in the cast. As a celebrity, he is problematic. Many of his antics are off putting and his persona might be objectionable. I really don’t care much about those sort of things. As an actor I have found him to be fairly consistent in turning in quality performances, both in CGI behemoths and in independent projects. This is probably his best work as an actor that I can remember. His manner of speech is not quite dominated by an accent as it is representative of a lifestyle and culture.  While much of that is the dialogue he has been given, he has to find a way for it to seem natural, and he does that quite well. The physical aspects of his performance are also solid. He is a young man, beaten down by circumstances and haunted by guilt. He is capable of enjoying moments of levity but you can see in most of his scenes that there is a shadow that hangs over him and that it pushes down on him physically as well as emotionally. The best news is, he is not really the star of the picture and all of his work is a reflection that he is a supporting character in the story, even though he has a substantial amount of the screen time.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen is the real star of the film. He is an actor with Downs syndrome who has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders. His openness is the main hook that makes the performance viable. Although he is playing a character with the same condition he has, that character has distinctive behaviors and attitudes that are part of the script. Toward the end of the movie, there is a moment of doubt and fear that has never existed in his character Zac, prior to that instant. The actor makes it real and that is one of the places that makes this a true performance and not just stunt casting. He builds credible relations with the other two major players and a series of other characters as well.

Although the movie focuses on the relationship between the two actors I’ve mentioned so far, there are several others that deserve to be mentioned, not the least of whom is Dakota Johnson. This young woman has the good fortune or curse of having been the lead in the series of Mommy Porn films based on Twilight fan fiction which became so popular a few years ago. The movies are widely derided and it would be easy to dismiss her as a pretty face without commensurate talent. That would be a mistake. She was quite good in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she is touching and sincere in this film as well. She is a conflicted care giver who knows how difficult life for Zac can be, but she can also see the impact that the relationship Zac has with LaBeouf’s character  is a positive one. There are three terrific actors in relatively small parts in the rest of the film, all three are former Academy Award nominees. John Hawkes is cast in his usual redneck image and he is the villain of the piece in spite of his character being largely in the right concerning his dispute with LaBeouf’s Tyler.  Bruce Dern is in the early scenes as a sympathetic resident in Zac’s care facility, and he adds some spunk to the proceedings early on. Finally, Thomas Haden Church may have the best character part since his role in “Sideways”, as a wrestling figure from the past who is an inspiration to Zac.

The film has a great deal of humor based on character to offer us. Tyler does not start out very sympathetic either as a person or towards Zac. The film suggests that good will can manifest good relations and that those are the things we should value above everything else. The lack of good will exhibited by the facility administrators, the crab fishing rivals and a broken down wrestler are the reasons we can’t appreciate their behaviors, even when they are somewhat understandable. Tyler on the other hand, in spite of his criminal acts, turns out to have good will in his heart, the story attempts to show us how someone can recover that by caring for another person. Sometimes these kinds of films are refereed to as “feel-good” movies.  Unfortunately that label might be seen as some as disparaging. In my opinion, this is a movie that makes you feel good because it plays honestly with the characters, not because it manipulates them or us.

Chappaquiddick

Over the weekend, I saw two films. One made me clench my arms and legs, bite my lip and hold onto my seat. The second made me sick to my stomach. This is a paraphrase of what my daughter said after seeing Chappaquiddick. This straightforward retelling of the tragedy from 1969, should enrage, depress and gut punch you in a way that is a lot less enjoyable than a horror film. This episode from the life of a lionized political figure should cause some serious reassessment of his place in the pantheon of Kennedy family heroes. Ted Kennedy may have grown from this time to represent something more in political fields, but the social reputation he had towards the end of his life  suggests that he had the same aura of entitlement that lead to the disgraceful events depicted in this movie.

The film does not really depict anything that was not known about the events leading up to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. There was a party, he drove her to meet the ferry, he was flustered on the road and seen driving erratically by a local police officer, then drove down an unpaved road and off the side of a bridge that had no guardrail. Ted Kennedy got out of the car, she did not. Some officials believe she had suffocated rather than drowned. It is possible had they been called earlier, she could have been rescued or maybe she was already dead. There was no autopsy. Ted Kennedy did not report the accident for nine hours, by that time it had already been discovered by others. Kennedy denied drinking or driving under the influence, but ten hours after the accident, BAC tests were not likely to discover much. Before he contacted authorities, Kennedy contacted his group of political advisers, his friends and his family. There was some talk of saying that she was driving, but the Senator did not make that claim to the police.

The visualization of all the events in the film seems to be as objective as possible. This movie is not a hit piece, no suggestion of a sexual encounter is made, and most of the aftermath is public record. Some phone calls and conversations between Kennedy and his Father are dramatized. If there is a sense of the melodramatic it is in those moments, which are of course the most speculative. Everything else demonstrates how political necessity trumped justice in this case. Within a week Kennedy plead guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and got a two month suspended sentence. One thing the film definitely gets right is that much of the news impact of this event was washed away in the other news story of the day, man first stepping on the moon. The media did address the accident, but it was mostly willing to let the explanations of public officials who had connections to the Kennedy family, go by without much follow up.

Actor Jason Clarke, who coincidentally was born the day before the events depicted in this film, portrays Ted Kennedy and does a solid job. While not a perfect physical match, he seems to have the same sort of expressive face as Kennedy and his accent and vocals match the Senators without being mimicking. The screenplay highlights the self centered attitude and actions taken by the Senator. The suggestion is that he did not like being managed, but that he was not capable of managing himself. The ridiculous neck brace that he wore in public to the funeral of Miss Kopechne is emblematic of how important it was to listen to advisers with better political instincts. Clarke almost makes Kennedy a figure of more than self-pity, even though as is pointed out by his friend, cousin and political retainer, “you are NOT the victim.” Kennedy was surrounded by friends who gave him good advice, and they were lawyers including a U.S. Attorney. He ignored their pleas and made things worse. Clarke uses his narrow eyes and gaping mouth to convey Kennedy’s befuddlement over his own stupidity.

If there is a moral conscience to the film it is Ed Helms as cousin Joe Gargan. Helms conveys the loyalty of a friend with the pragmatics of the circumstances. Every time he thinks the Senator is getting it right, he will end up being disappointed.  You can see his growing disdain for the choices that are being made and when he ultimately ends up holding the cue cards for the supposedly “from the heart” moment of Kennedy’s television address, the visual loss of respect on his face shows that Helms is in fact a good actor, capable of much more than the comedies he is known for. Clancy Brown makes an imposing Robert McNamara, the second portrayal of this figure on screen in the last two months. Bruce Dern is suitably old, and quiet as Joseph Kennedy Sr., who is presented as having little respect for his youngest son.  The politics of personal destruction, which is the current game plan of most politicians these days, may not have started here, but this is where it grew up. Spin management requires an active and immediate response. Too bad for Mary Jo Kopechne that Senator Kennedy did not learn those lessons before he drove off the bridge.