Freedom and The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a revolutionary movie. It’s on Amazon Prime right now. You should watch it.

What makes the film revolutionary? It transfigures and clarifies the advance of freedom. Revolutions emerge for myriad reasons. Some of them technological, e.g., the cotton gin or washing machine. Others of them religious, e.g., the Protestant Reformation is going to have its social and political ripples, now that you can no longer lean on the authority of the priest, and the ultimate responsibility for your soul lays with yourself, that’s going to change the way you look at your boss in all aspects of your life. It’ll not merely change your religious life; it’ll add weight to all of your activity, as your soul is now at stake in your own autonomous decisions.

There is a philosopher named Hegel who understood that an important drive of a revolution is a people’s changing self-consciousness of freedom and what needs to be instituted for this freedom to be realized. That’s the revolutionary contribution of The Peanut Butter Falcon. It’s the story of young man with Down Syndrome who escapes his care facility to join a television wrestling school, and the staff attendant tasked with taking him back to his care facility.

I appreciate the film for various reasons, including how it finds ways to validate the meaningful and legitimate aspirations of the escapee, while revealing the conventional and lackluster aspirations of those officially charged with caring for him. I also think it’s important that the protagonist’s freedom consists not merely in escaping his care facility, but that freedom entails the active participation in another institution, in this case, a wrestling school. Self-determination isn’t just about escape; it’s just as much about having an interactive world to escape into.

There is a third character, played by Shia LaBeouf, who is necessary, but only because we live in a world that is so far from understanding a meaningful life that we need an interpretative guide to help us make sense of the other characters. Some of the dialogue delivered by Shia Labeouf’s character is a bit on the nose. It’s good philosophical insight, but it’s just not obvious where this guy would pick up the insight, so I wanted a little bit more cultural backstory concerning how LaBeouf’s character is so philosophically talented. If we had the conventions that produced his sort of precise wisdom among everyday Americans, we wouldn’t be in our current situation.

But the real contribution of the film is how the story indicts the abject, pernicious failure of the liberal institutional care model. This is why the character to watch is Dakota Johnson’s character.

This is an especially important lesson now that COVID threatens all manners of meaning-making institutions in the name of safety, and the people making these decisions regarding how institutions of meaning are to be reformed and deformed, have many degrees and much codified authority, as they install institutions consistent with their depressingly shallow apprehension of freedom in life.

Our culture is awash with suburban do-gooders who will screw up their own, and through their institutional power, everyone else’s entire life. This is the movie that should be shown in their social work and therapy programs.