Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, a scene of violence, and brief strong language, 97 minutes
Affecting "The Black Balloon" poignantly examines family and autism
The Australian film "The Black Balloon" is an award-winning, hearbreaking look at how autism affects family even in the smallest of ways. Though this type of story has been seen before, "Black Balloon's" superb acting, directing and writing lift it above the normal TV movie-of-the-week. Though overly familiar, "Black Balloon" is filled with many compelling, entertaining moments that underscore the importance of love in all relationships, normal and not-so-normal.
When Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) and his military family move to a new home and he has to start at a new school, all he wants is to fit in. When his very pregnant mother (Toni Collette) has to take it easy, he's put in charge of his autistic older brother Charlie (Luke Ford). Thomas, with the help of his new girlfriend Jackie (Gemma Ward) faces his biggest challenge yet. Charlie’s unusual antics take Thomas and his family on an emotional journey that cause his suppressed frustrations about his brother to reach a boiling point.
"The Black Balloon" is a compelling drama that examines the effects of autism of an Australian family who just wants to fit in and be normal. Directed and written by Aussie Alissa Down, autism serves as the backdrop for this coming-of-age-romance drama that looks at the situation primarily from the view of the normal brother, Thomas and his struggles to fit in and the obstacles he has from his autistic older brother Charlie, who unwittingly spoils the situation at every turn: throwing fits in the grocery story, running through the neighborhood in his underwear and other unexpected events.
Director Down skillfully directs and captures some powerfully sad scenes, most of which are very physically exhausting. The most unforgettable is Charlie's breakdown at Thomas's family birthday party in front of Thomas's shocked girlfriend, well-played by the pretty Ward. All of the cast members contribute excellent performances, including "The Sixth Sense's" Collette as the caring mother and newcomer Wakefield as the understandably frustrated brother.
Luke Ford ("The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor") is the most memorable, giving a sensitive, tender performance as the mute, autistic Charlie. Though the role requires the "most" acting of the family members, it's utterly believable and engaging. Ford, along with Collette, rightfully won Australian Film Institute awards last year for their performances, and Ford might find himself nominated for an Academy Award for 2009.
"The Black Balloon" doesn't subscribe to any lofty notions or preachy messages, and most importantly, it opts for subtle, even restrained emotional responses rather than big, maudlin moments. While the story has a familiar ring to it ("RainMan" anyone?), it's an effective, honest portrait of family trying to do the right thing, and that's all you can ask for.