Australian penchant for suburban nostalgia is alive and kicking in
director Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon. In cicada-laden average
streets saturated with luxuriant summer colours, an unspecified year in
the 1980s is more or less recreated.
Home and Away actor Rhys Wakefield plays Thomas Mollison, who is
turning 16 and has to juggle the typical territory: girls and cars and
school and sport (in his case, attempting to swim to the end of the
pool). Alongside his eccentric father Simon (Erik Thomson, an army
employee who drags his family around the country and who semi-comically
talks to his teddy bear) and United States of Tara-channelling
mother Maggie (Toni Collette, grounding and rounding out the
performances but sadly missing in the middle part of the film), Thomas
confronts the challenging realities of an autistic older brother.
Charlie (Luke Ford) cannot speak and makes himself known to the world
through grunts and noisy, violent physicality. It isn’t always pretty,
especially at the supermarket check-out. And it doesn’t help that a
‘bitch’ neighbour threatens to call child services then police! But all
up, the family seems to cope.
Thomas gets interested in swim-team colleague Jackie (Gemma Ward, of
Search for a Supermodel fame), he finds Charlie a predictable yet
immovable hindrance. Early on, one confronting scene makes this very,
very clear. Yet she is not repulsed by his brother in a way he
thinks she would be.
co-wrote the script with Jimmy Jack and she has her own experience,
growing up with an autistic brother, to drawn on. The story is touching
and studded with many affecting scenes. The two siblings manage to
create a genuine on-screen bond which convinces the viewer that they
have been close before we know will be close for all their years to
Colette sparkles with domestic, maternal realism: there is a very big
risk she may have overwhelmed everyone else. I love how it looks and
sounds, especially the 80s Aussie rock soundtrack.
while some may say it manipulates our emotions, The Black Balloon
swerves quickly and jolts us out of our complacent feelings, pushing
forward understandable but enormous expressive energy in scenes such as
the birthday one. The filmmaking is superb because multiple dialogue
streams simultaneously, like real life; and the camera is there to
capture all the nuances of what people on screen are feeling.
movie should not simply be thought of as a piece of homework on better
understanding the lives of those with autism; nor should it be simply an
indulgence in quaint Australiana; it is a poignant, engrossing and
beautiful story with few flaws.