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Australia 2007
Directed by
Elissa Downs
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4.5 stars

The Black Balloon

Synopsis: Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) is turning 16 and has just moved house. His pregnant mother Maggie (Toni Collette) is told to take it easy, so the burden of caring for his older autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford), falls on Thomas and his Dad, Simon (Erik Thomson). At such a delicate age, when Thomas is desperately trying to fit in at a new school, that’s the last thing he needs. His new girlfriend Jackie (Gemma Ward) is an unexpected source of strength and together they take a journey of growing up.

The invaluable press notes that we film reviewers all receive describe The Black Balloon as “a story about fitting in, discovering love and accepting your family.” The film is indeed that and anyone who querously asks “who wants to see a film about disability?” would miss a wonderful new contribution to the catalogue of “issue-based” films, one with more angst and heart than you would ever imagine, finely acted, strongly directed and full of humour whose merits have been internationally acknowledged, winning a well-deserved Glass Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

First time director Downs who was inspired by her own experience of living with two autistic brothers has delivered a script that oozes authenticity. Many of the scenes are based upon actual incidents from Downs’ family life with the character of the father is based upon Downs’ own father who was an army man, constantly moving house, so the kids had the added trauma of always trying to fit into a new town. With that comes the issue of people not understanding autism and being disapproving of the family, as is portrayed so well in many scenes in the film (watch out for the supermarket scene).

Aside from the script being spot-on, the film’s casting is a coup! For a start, the ever-brilliant Collette captures the nature about this suburban Mum that is at once heart-breaking and so admirable. She loves both her sons equally yet is harder on Thomas whilst showing unconditional acceptance of Charlie and behaving in a way with him that made me quite in awe of her character. Young Wakefield as Thomas comes from the dreaded Home and Away stable, but if this is what he’s capable of in feature film, then we should be seeing a lot more of him. He imbues Thomas with a rich range of attributes – he is at heart a gentle and caring boy, yet he desperately wants what most teenagers desire, a girlfriend and to fit in. When he is forced to catch the Special School bus and is derided by the other kids our hearts go out to him. When, at Thomas’s 16th birthday party Charlie behaves inappropriately in front of Jackie, Thomas’s anger finally bubbles over and a disturbing scene ensues. The talented young actor smoothly embodies all the intricacies and complexities of a growing teenager in a very challenging situation.

Luke Ford researched carefully for the physical side of his role. I was floored by his performance and the gamut of emotions his character evoked in me is a testament to his success. He is at once infuriating to the point that, as an audience, we cannot imagine coping with this human being and yet he has a mischievous side, a childlike ingenuousness that endears him to us. Young Ward as Jackie comes from a music video and modelling background. She is quite incandescent as Jackie, a girl mature beyond her years and with such an empathy for the brothers.

The Black Balloon will entertain, enlighten and ultimately give a greater understanding of the huge battles some people have to face simply to attempt to live a “normal” life.




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