The Black Balloon
I don’t remember a game of tag being this awkward.

Theatrical Release Date: 03/06/2008 (Australia), 04/03/2009 (USA)
Director: Elissa Down
Cast: Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Gemma Ward, Erik Thomson

Finally, another Australian film has made its way stateside and this time it’s “The Black Balloon”, recipient of two Australian Film Institute awards (director, screenplay). After seeing the film, I can understand why it was so acclaimed Down Under. Director/co-writer Elissa Down has two autistic brothers and it’s clear that much of Charlie’s character and the family’s interaction with and because of him draws upon personal experiences.

The film is a period piece, unobtrusively set in the 1980s, telling the tale of the Mollison family. Their oldest son, Charlie (Luke Ford) is autistic and the film unfolds as his brother Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) struggles to deal with the hurricane of emotions and responsibilities that come with teenage hormones, fitting into a new high school and helping to care for his brother.

Wakefield does an excellent job of delivering on those emotions, feeling genuine and sincere most of the time. His performance shines brightest as he tries to balance shame, anger, guilt and love all at once. It’s hard enough to be a teenager. Being forced to handle all that comes with someone of Charlie’s special needs only ups the ante.

Speaking of Charlie, Luke Ford gives a fantastic performance – approaching that of James McAvoy or Steven Robertson in “Rory O’Shea Was Here”. After seeing Ford in the off-putting “Mummy III“, I didn’t expect to next see him in such a strong role. However, credit must be paid when it is due and his portrayal allows the rest of the cast to travel on their personal emotional journeys.

The big name in the film is Toni Collette, who plays Charlie and Thomas’ mother. While I’ve seen better performances from her (“Muriel’s Wedding”, “Japanese Story”, “The Dead Girl“), she is more than capable of giving her character all of the strength, optimism and willpower necessary to pull off the role. Collette is the glue in the family, compensating for the rest of them in whatever way is needed.

The big surprise of the film is Gemma Ward, who plays Jackie – a schoolmate of Thomas’. A relative newcomer and model, she had the challenging task of creating a character able to not only accept Charlie, but embrace him emotionally – all the while becoming the girlfriend/caretaker for Thomas. Ward tacked this task head on and created a girl so virtuous that I think she’s being canonized next week.

Therein lies one of my biggest problems with the film; On what planet does a teenage girl so emotionally wise and psychologically resilient exist? I understand the attraction to Thomas and the initial willingness to connect with Charlie but towards the end of the film, there’s a clear and powerful moment from which reconciliation between Jackie and Thomas just wouldn’t happen in real life (especially as quickly and cleanly as depicted).

Still, perhaps the foremost reason keeping the film from earning another point on the rating scale is that Down seemed to be so intent on capturing the collective effect of Charlie’s condition on the family that perspective from which the audience is to view the story is often muddled. It’s clearly supposed to be told from Thomas’ point of view but it often feels like that shifts from time to time depending on the scene.

“The Black Balloon” is a touching story, with good acting performances and that almost ethereal, amorphous Aussie charm. I could have done with a bit more focus to the overall story, a little less cheese at the end and I’m still finding it hard to believe a girl like Jackie exists in real life (if so, call me) but otherwise, I found myself quite immersed in the lives of Thomas, Charlie, Jackie and the rest. Don’t let my average 3 out of 5 scare you off, I basically weighed this film against “Rory O’Shea Was Here” and couldn’t justify putting it on par with that. But if you’re on the fence for this one, consider this review a push towards checking it out.