My sister Carol had Down Syndrome so I know a little about relating to people with that affliction. As a youngster, I would go with my mother and Carol to a Thursday night gathering for what was then referred to as “retarded” teenagers.
The event was called “Teen Town,” and there I met Carol’s friends, and, in particular, Carol’s boyfriend Sam. They were very warm and friendly and socially normal. I felt comfortable with them because their conversation was about the same things I talked and thought about. Topics included, among others, upcoming social events, sports, who was dating whom, and the movies they saw.
It was easy for me to relate to The Peanut Butter Falcon, a Huck Finn-type journey that two outsiders take, and who, in the course of their experience together, become better people in one way or another.
Zak is a 22-year-old with Down Syndrome, and an actor who actually has the Syndrome portrays him; thus, his portrayal resonates with authenticity as we observe him interacting with people of all types. He resides at an assisted living facility in North Carolina where he is cared for by Eleanor, a sensitive social worker. Zak dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, obsessively watching wrestling videos featuring his hero, Salt Water Redneck.
On one particular night, he escapes the facility with the help of Carl, an elderly resident, who feels Zak needs to be in the real world, not in an elder care environment with little stimulation of any kind. Overnight, Zak stows away on a small fishing boat belonging to Tyler, a hot-headed thief and crab fisherman, who hangs around with an assortment of lowlifes. In an argument with a couple of them, he decides to burn their fishing gear. As a result, they vengefully pursue him as he tries to elude them on his old motorboat.
Tyler does not realize that Zak is on board until they reach harbor, after which he instructs Zak to leave him. However, when Tyler witnesses a young boy taunting Zak to jump in deep water while Zak protests that he cannot swim, Tyler changes his mind about leaving Zak to fend for himself. Instead, he commits to taking Zak with him as he travels to his destination in Florida. It is an easy decision since Zak’s wrestling school destination is in the same direction.
Along the way, the pair encounters a variety of eccentric locals, one of whom baptizes Zak and gives them supplies for a rafting trip they take down a river. Throughout their journey, Tyler encourages Zak to have self-confidence, relating to him as a regular friend, not as a disabled person.
Robin A. Meltzer, parent of a Down Syndrome child, writes about the importance of relating to such a child as a person first, and as a disabled person later. Underlying her approach is the mantra: My daughter is a unique individual, not a diagnosis.
At the Passover Seder, there is the classic story of the “four sons,” all of whom can learn, but in different ways. “The son who does not know how to ask” may be emblematic of the Down Syndrome child who needs more attention than the others. The famous account of Rav Preida in the Talmud provides a vivid example of the extent to which a teacher has to extend himself for a student who has trouble comprehending things. The sage had a student who needed his lessons repeated 400 times. On one occasion, it took 800 repetitions, yet Rav Preida did not lose his patience. For such perseverance, God rewarded him with long life and life in the World-to-Come.
Moreover, it is recorded that one of the great Torah scholars of the twentieth century, the Chazon Ish, would rise in the presence of a person with Down Syndrome, considering such a person to possess an elevated soul.
Meltzer observes: “It is true that a person’s value is not determined by his or her capabilities, and that we need to appreciate the intrinsic worth of one’s soul. But at the same time, if we really valued people regardless of their limitations, we would do all we could to include those with Down Syndrome into community life. Because that is the Torah way.” The relationship between Tyler and Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon reminds us that the friendship between the able and the disabled can be robust, satisfying, and enduring.