This is a classic road movie – or in this story more of a waterway movie – but with one important element which makes it different from other examples of the genre. Its leading actor.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s syndrome, who for some reason best known to the authorities is incarcerated in a care facility for elderly people. Not surprisingly he wants to break out and in his case pursue his dream of joining the professional wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), old videos of whose fights he plays constantly. When he does finally succeed in making his escape, clad only in his knickers, he joins forces with Tyler (LaBeouf), a down and out who has been scraping a living by stealing the catch of other crab fishermen – tough guys, who are now in pursuit of him wanting their revenge. Zak and Tyler manage to get hold of a raft on which they embark on a journey by water from North Carolina through Georgia to Florida through some pretty wild and impressive country in search of Zak’s hero. The title of the film refers to the name Zak chooses with Tyler’s help as his wrestler name.
The story of the development of a friendship between unlikely buddies is not a new one and neither is the Deep South setting. The film’s debut directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz make no secret of the fact that their inspiration for this is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But Gottsagen’s delightful performance of a character who combines vulnerability and sweetness with a fierce desire for independence gives it an original edge. LaBeouf gives unselfish support as Tyler, emotionally lost after the death of his brother, who finds himself reconnecting to life through his new friend. This alternative family is later completed by Dakota Johnson as a caring volunteer from Zak’s care facility, who provides an understated love interest for Tyler.
The story is prevented from being too sweet by the brutality of Tyler’s pursuers – John Hawkes particularly nasty here – and the climactic wrestling match itself. There is also an engaging cameo from Bruce Dern as the old codger in the care home who aids Zak’s escape and from Haden Church as the now broken down wrestling star, who rediscovers his mojo.
This is not a particularly original film but it is a very likeable one, made particularly so by Gottsagen’s performance. There aren’t that many roles for Downs syndrome actors and the film makers wrote this story with the actor in mind. In the past there have been some very accomplished performances from others with the same condition, such as the children in Café de Flore (2011) and the very talented Pascal Duquenne, remembered for starring roles in several films including The Eighth Day (1996) with Daniel Auteuil. More recently there was Sanctuary (2016), an Irish made Romeo and Juliet style story starring Kieran Coppinger and Charlene Kelly as the young couple. Talents however which are often under-used in further films. So let’s hope this isn’t the last we see of Zack Gottsagen on screen