Teaching & Learning

Impossible Dreams Realized: New Films Feature Performers With Disabilities

Special education teachers know that many of their students will be able to live rich lives beyond the classroom. With instruction designed to meet their unique learning needs, these educators give students with special needs the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. 

That includes the opportunity to realize their hopes and dreams. Two recent films — one a feature-length movie and the other a documentary — focus on young people with disabilities who are passionate about reaching their goals, and the friends and family who help them. The films are worth tracking down to screen with colleagues and students.

The Peanut Butter Falcon stars Zack Gottsagen, a performer with Down syndrome who is described by movie co-director Tyler Nilson as possessing relentless optimism backed up by the kind of fierce ambition that makes stars out of actors. He plays Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who dreams of being a professional wrestler and busts out from his care facility to find a wrestling idol he knows only from old videotapes.

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon.

Along the way, he meets fugitive fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), and the unlikely pair set off on a makeshift raft down waterways in the American South, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The storytelling is colorful and lyrical, and Gottsagen has been praised for the humor and intelligence he brings to the role. Said one critic: “All you have to do is watch Gottsagen’s performance to see what we are missing when we discount the complaints of the disabled community in re: representation. It is inconceivable to imagine an able-bodied ‘name’ playing this role and bringing to it even half of what Gottsagen does naturally.”

“The whole movie is about someone like Zack being able to do what other people do,” Nilson says.

Brian Donovan, his then-fiancée Tempany Deckert (now his wife), and his sister Kelly Donovan.

Another performer, Kelly Donovan, was born with Down syndrome, and at age 5 doctors discovered a hole in her heart and said she wouldn’t live past 20. The high-spirited, extroverted Kelly and older brother Brian were inseparable growing up in 1970s New York, bonded by a love of performing and described by Brian as “soul mates.” She dreamed of becoming a Hollywood diva, so when he moved to Los Angeles as an adult, he brought her out and started filming their journey to create and present a live one-night-only variety show starring Kelly.

Kelly’s Hollywood documents not only unconditional family love and Kelly’s exuberant talents, but also the challenges as her health began to fail and Brian’s tight relationship with his sibling threatened the relationship with his fiancée. The show, a red-carpet event complete with press coverage, eventually took place. Sadly, Kelly passed away in 2009 at age 39.

Brian Donovan said that “the dignity of risk” guided the show and the documentary. “It’s the idea [from writer Robert Perske] that self-determination shouldn’t be impeded by excessively cautious caregivers,” he said in a story in the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s a scary proposition, but if you strip that autonomy from a human being, you strip away their passion for life.

“That’s all my sister ever wanted — not to be famous, but to be recognized as a fully realized person.”


To check for theater showings of The Peanut Butter Falcon, go to thepeanutbutterfalconmovie.com. It is also available for preorder on Amazon Prime Video. Kelly’s Hollywood is available on Amazon Prime Video; for more information, go to kellyshollywood.com

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