Protect, or Deprive of Liberty?

Review by Khalid Ali, Film and Media correspondent

‘The peanut butter falcon’, directed by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, USA 2019,

Showing at the Love Gala at the BFI London Film Festival, 3, 4th and 11th October 2019.

No one can question the fact that healthcare professionals have a duty of care and protection towards vulnerable patients when these patients are in hospital settings. However, there is a fine line between ‘protection’ and ‘dominance’, between ‘care’ and ‘control’ and between a ‘supportive environment’ and ‘prison’. These themes are skilfully analysed in ‘The peanut butter falcon’ which tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a 22-year old man with Down’s syndrome. Zak lives in a retirement care home sharing a room with Carl (Bruce Dern), a kind old man who tolerates Zak’s obsession with wrestling. Zak spends his evenings continuously watching his idol ‘Salt Water Redneck’, a wrestling champion, on VHS tapes. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is the kind-hearted social worker who befriends Zak, but tells him off for repeatedly trying to escape the care home. Having lived all his life imprisoned in the care home, Zak is keen to explore ‘real life’ outside; he wants to experience what teenagers his age do, have a birthday party, and pursue his dream of becoming a famous wrestling champion. The care home warden ridicules Zak, and labels him ‘not safe to be allowed into the big wild world on his own’. Encouraged by Carl, his roommate, Zak ultimately manages to escape. While on the run, he hides in a fishing boat that belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) a wandering angry fisherman running from his own demons. The two forge an unlikely friendship with Eleanor on their trail to take Zak back to ‘safety’. A charming road adventure follows with Tyler becoming a friend and a mentor for Zak teaching him how to swim and fire arms, and advocates for Zak’s right to live independently. However the road to Zak’s free will and autonomy is full of twists and turns.

The film premiered in South by Southwest Film Festival, and was met with unanimous acclaim being awarded the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award. It is obvious that the film directors who also wrote the script champion Zak’s right to dictate his future. Zack Gottsagen makes for an appealing hero cheered by the audience when he defies a system that incarcerates him. Zak is full of life and wisdom; in a poignant scene of role-reversal, Zak becomes Tyler’s carer and provides him with a crying shoulder.

While watching the film, I reflect on how many times healthcare professionals stopped patients from going home because of worry that they might fall or hurt themselves, and deemed them ‘not safe to be allowed into the big wild world on their own’. How many times patients have been ‘deprived of their liberty’ because of an over-protective culture that is risk-averse. Patients who lack capacity are the most vulnerable ones to end up in such situations. Zak’s story challenges our fixed beliefs that ‘we know better’. We are urged to consider situations from the viewpoint of people we care for. Some empathetic members of social care institutions who uphold their patients’ right to choose as represented by Eleanor are condemned by their managers and chased by the police if they support an ‘unwise decision’ taken by those patients.

The film reminded me of the landmark Supreme Court judgment in the case of ‘P’ who had cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. P’s mother challenged care home authorities stating that ‘P’ was not free to leave his placement and hence was ‘deprived of his liberty’. The Supreme Court ruled that ‘disabled people should not face a tougher standard for being deprived of their liberty than non-disabled people’. Baroness Hale commented ‘’A gilded cage is still a cage’’.  (https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2014/04/08/a-gilded-cage-is-still-a-cage-supreme-court-on-deprivation-of-liberty-for-the-mentally-incapacitated/)

In the film, Zak has never had a ‘capacity assessment’ for his ‘preferred home’. However the question remains whether capacity assessments done by specialists can amicably resolve such complicated issues? These assessments might help, but not always, as they can be used to undermine the same people we are trying to act in their best interests.

Depriving people with special needs of their ‘right to choose’ is inherently flawed; it is a fundamental Human Right to decide where to live and with whom. In challenging our fixed beliefs that ‘we’ know better’, Zak ‘the peanut butter wrestling champion’ reminds us that health and social care professionals  are there to ‘care and protect’ and not to ‘incarcerate’.

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