(2019) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zach Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Raquel Aurora, Michael Berthold, Deja Dee, Lee Spencer, Rob Thomas, Mark Helms, Dylan Odom, Nick Morbitt, Noah Hein, Annie Jamison, Susan McPhail, Karen B. Greer. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz
Some movies have their hearts in the right place. You can tell that there’s a sincere desire to shine a light on the marginalized, or tell a story close to the heart of those telling it. But lofty as those ambitions might be, they are not always realized on celluloid.
Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome who has been warehoused in a nursing home simply because the state has nowhere else to put him. Abandoned by his parents, he is left to rot amongst old folks waiting to die. Zak makes it from day to day because of a dream – to attend the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Church) and become a professional wrestler himself.
Although treated kindly by nurse’s aide Eleanor (Johnson), Zak knows that he has to get out of there or risk watching life pass him by with his dreams unfulfilled. With the help of his roommate, crusty old Carl (Dern, who has made a career of portraying cranky old men) and some strategically applied soap, Carl wriggles out of the barred window wearing only his tighty whities and escapes to find his dream.
Tyler (LaBeouf) wants little more than to be left alone and be able to support himself by crabbing on the boat left to him by his older brother (Bernthal) who passed away recently. However, Tyler is one of those guys who is his own worst enemies – drinking too much, drowning in anger issues and playing by his own rules when it suits him, even if his rules supersede the rules of society and decency. On the run with some angry Outer Banks crabbers out for his blood, he and Zak meet and despite Tyler’s initial reluctance, decide to travel together at least as far as Aden, NC (site of the wrestling school) while Tyler high-tails it to Jupiter, Florida afterwards. With Eleanor desperately chasing after Zak, Tyler and Zak find themselves sailing on a raft through the by-waters and estuaries of the Outer Banks in a desperate bid for the freedom that has eluded the both of them all their lives.
This is sort of like Huckleberry Finn by way of the Discovery Channel. The connection between Zak and Tyler is central to the film and to their credit, the two actors manage to carry it off most of the time. The movie never condescends towards Zak’s condition; it is treated matter-of-factly, as the color of his eyes and hairs would be. In a sense, the movie portrays people with Down’s syndrome about as realistically as any movie has ever portrayed them. Again, heart in the right place.
But this is the hard part. I feel like a complete heel for saying this because I think Gottsagen is doing his best, but he doesn’t deliver a compelling performance here. Sad to say, quite the opposite; whenever Zak speaks the film comes to a grinding halt. Lines are bellowed without conviction and you never get a sense of the depth of his obsession with becoming a wrestler. It comes across as an idea that wandered across his radar one day and is just sitting a spell before moving on when supplanted by another. I know it makes it sound like I’m saying that hanging out with people with Down’s Syndrome is annoying and that’s not at all what I’m meaning to convey, but hanging out with this guy with Down’s Syndrome is annoying. I do give the filmmakers kudos for casting someone with Down’s Syndrome to play someone with Down’s and I applaud the effort to bring a marginalized group to the screen in a sympathetic non-comic relief role, but Gottsagen didn’t quite deliver as I might have hoped.
That’s a shame because the cast is marvelous and they all do great work, even Johnson who is often maligned for her work in the 50 Shades of Grey films. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck and Johnson delivers on the sweet here, although her romance with Tyler comes off as unlikely at best. Still, the movie seems to have a theme of unlikely plot developments.
The cinematography by veteran Nigel Bluck makes nice use of the Georgia wetlands which substitute here for the Outer Banks – apparently the tax incentives are better in Georgia than they are in North Carolina. In any event, the film does its level best to be charming and often succeeds – but often shoots itself in the foot, seemingly taking on a philosophy of The Ends Justify the Means which is a bit disquieting. For those looking for a diversion from the summer blockbusters but can’t wait for the Fall’s Oscar contenders to arrive, this will do in a pinch.
REASONS TO SEE: Never too sweet, never too edgy. LaBeouf reminds us why he was considered one of Hollywood’s up-and-comers not too long ago.
REASONS TO AVOID: Whenever Gottsagen opens his mouth, the movie comes to a grinding halt. Seems to promote an “ends justifies the means” philosophy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Zak, Tyler and Eleanor jump off the oil rig by swinging on a rope, the actors did the swinging; no stunt doubles were used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Brian Banks