Elissa Down’s first feature is a solid and uncompromising look at a suburban family in the very early 90s. Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield) and his family have moved house once again, following their father’s (Erik Thomson) new army posting. Thomas’ mother Maggie (Toni Collette) is heavily pregnant but it’s his brother Charlie that sets the Mollisons apart from the average suburban family. Charlie (Luke Ford) is severely autistic – he can engage in the outside world, but only through sign language, and is frequently a source of stress and grief for Thomas.
As a family drama, The Black Balloon is a strong feature, though I am getting slightly tired of the genre’s preponderance in the Australian film industry. Of course, I’m only comparing it to Clubland and Romulus, My Father, but it’s perhaps because our country makes so few features that I’m so sensitive to this.
Jimmy Jack and Down’s screenplay is keen to never gloss over the harder aspects of autism – we can see why Thomas finds it so hard to love his brother for who he is. He spends much of his time wishing that Charlie would ‘get better’, as if all it requires is some hard work and dedication on the family’s part.
Like that other Aussie film I promised myself I wouldn’t mention too much in this review, Thomas meets the model-like Jackie at school (played by model Gemma Ward), and is soon embroiled in a teen romance made slightly more complicated by his home situation. It is perhaps disappointing that Jackie is portrayed as nothing but perfect – understanding and accepting of just about every bad event that comes her way, but she isn’t the focus of the film. It really comes down to Thomas and Charlie, and their performances are spot on. Luke Ford is utterly believable as the autistic Charlie, and has recently springboarded into the US market with the third Mummy film, to come out later this year. It’s easy to overlook Wakefield, however, and this is perhaps indicative of the role Thomas plays in the family. He manages to nail the performance as a teenage boy who thinks that the world (or more specifically Charlie) is against him, and wants nothing more than to be in a ‘normal’ family.
Above all, The Black Balloon feels a very real, authentic Australian film and the strong script is aided by all-round fine performances.Rating: