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Gemma Ward as Jackie (Photo: NeoClassics Films)

Directed by
Elissa Down
Produced by
Tristram Miall
Written by
Down & Jimmy Jack
Released by
NeoClassics Films Ltd.
Australia. 97 min. Rated PG-13
Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Erik Thomson & Gemma Ward

Director/co-writer Elissa Down draws on her personal experiences with frank honesty to lift The Black Balloon up from being just another heartwarming movie about a family living with a special-needs child. As the sister of two autistic brothers, she does not take the usual easy movie way out by including an appealing or a high-functioning autistic teen (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Ben X) or adult (Rain Man). There are no miraculous breakthroughs in a family where the abnormal is normal.

Down never glosses over the daily difficulties in the life of Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield). Not only is the 15-year-old army brat adjusting to a new suburban school, but his heavily pregnant mother Maggie (Toni Collette) and harried dad Simon (Erik Thomson) need him to supervise his frequently out of control autistic big brother Charlie (Luke Ford). It’s not just in swim class where Thomas barely treads water. He cant even prevent Charlie from escaping from their home in his underwear when he runs down the block and up into the bathroom of Jackie (Gemma Ward), the pretty girl Thomas has been shyly flirting with at school.

There’s a sweet twist to the budding romance in the many lovely scenes with the very appealing Thomas and Jackie. (Down Under, Wakefield is graduating from TV soap stardom, and Ward, modeling.) The motherless, latch-key girl is drawn to the quirky and affectionate family that is so tightly bound together, despite Thomas’s resentments and Charlie’s acting out, both of which ratchet up more and more into explosive behavior.

After wrenching confrontations, everyone manages to come together for Charlie’s school production about Noah’s Ark, much like the presentation in Tricia Regan’s documentary Autism: The Musical, which highlighted how rare it is for families to stay intact when the mother is so focused on her autistic child. Collette’s earth mother would have seemed preternaturally capable and optimistic in dealing with the unending crises in the family if I hadn’t seen my extraordinary cousin also manage to similarly teach her autistic son sign language and coping skills back in the days before support systems were available. Given that the film is set very specifically in the 1980’s, with the family upgrading from Commodore video games to Super Nintendo and the exuberant Aussie rock soundtrack (Crowded House and the Go-Betweens), Australia must have been far ahead of the U.S. in available services. Charlie, at least, attends an appropriate school. (Sandrine Bonnaire’s documentary about her sister, Her Name Is Sabine, emphasizes how hard it was in France to find such support for autistic young adults into the 1990s.)

The Black Balloon has been screened at several family film festivals and is rated PG-13 only for its recognition of bodily functions and the occasional profanity angrily let loose during the very raw sibling rivalry. Nora Lee Mandel
December 5, 2008



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