There's an early scene in The Black Balloon, between father and son as they discuss the struggles of living with an adult family member stricken with severe autism. Father Simon Mollison (Erik Thomson) tells his son Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) â"you're piss if you don't take care of your own." The scene is extremely effective at showing the audience that there are indeed good people in the world. It also serves as an answer to any questions from those wondering if institutionalization is an option for families with an autistic child. Thomas's mother Maggie (Toni Collette) puts it best when she says she â"reckons we got Charlie because we're capable. Because we can handle him." Filmmaker Elissa Down knows first-hand the struggles involved and certainly has a lot to say about them. She takes her own experiences of growing up with two autistic siblings and turns them into a mesmerizing coming-of-age film steeped in the stubborn reality that the world can't be changed. Sometimes we just have to accept it as it is.
Down tells her semi-autobiographical story of The Black Balloon through Thomas's eyes. He's a high school teenager delicately balancing the struggles of adapting to a new environment he's a military brat while bearing the cross of a challenged sibling. His brother, Charlie (Luke Ford) is pretty much 100% non-functional with both Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Don't think of Raymond Babbit from Rain Man. Charlie's much worse off. He can't speak, only grunts and mumbles can't dress or feed himself, and takes advantage of an unlocked door by running through the streets clothed or unclothed. Thomas loves his brother but finds the burden to be a bit much after meeting the beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed neighbor Jackie (Gemma Ward).
Jackie is a Godsend but initially, too good to be true. We begin to wonder what's in it for her when she continues to stick around, even after witnessing Charlie's horrifying â"poop" incident in which he defecates on his bedroom floor and proceeds to smear it into the carpet and over his body. Then we realize Jackie's presence is to demonstrate that nice people really do exist, and that it doesn't hurt to depend on these types. Oval-faced, fair-skinned, and squinty-eyed, Ward is a fascinating thing to look at. She comes from the runway-model and fashion mag world so she's strikingly beautiful, but definitely shows she belongs in the movies. She's Thomas's rock in his sphere of insanity. She's both believable and even quite dynamic in her role. Anyone with less ability would crumble under the expectations and weight of the role.
Luke Ford plays his Charlie with unflinching abandon. Without uttering a single intelligible word, we're able to follow Charlie's ups and downs, mood swings, and his man-child irrationalities. He never plays for sympathy and in fact, is mostly repulsive throughout the entire film. Yet we see promise and hope during his tender moments. Even so, we're left with the stark realization that there's no absolute solution to this family's problems. The film's message about fitting in, discovering love, and accepting your family is hammered home every time Ford is on the screen. But Down skillfully dapples the proceedings with occasional tenderness and humor so as to not bring the house down with unrecoverable despair.
The Black Balloon sometimes stumbles with the occasional indie clichÃ© and out-of-place quirk, but the film is still an endearingly effective little low-budget film that engages the audience while also plopping us down in a tangible time and place. We feel the scorching heat of an Australian Summer, and agonize alongside a late â€˜80s family bending, but not breaking.
Screen Formats: 2.35:1
Language and Sound: English: Dolby Digital 5.1
Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access.
Number of Discs: 1 with Keepcase Packaging
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