Autism comedy strikes emotional equilibrium

The Black BalloonThe Black Balloon: 93 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Elissa Down. Starring: Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Erik Thomson, Gemma Ward.

Anyone who saw last year's Australian 'dramedy' Clubland may be struck by a sense of déjà vu when they come across The Black Balloon. Like its predecessor, The Black Balloon features a suburban teen hero looking for love and trying to live his own life, and variously helped and hindered by an overbearing mother and a brother with a disability.

But where Clubland suffered from a wavering tenor that saw it veer between slapstick and melodrama, The Black Balloon strikes a perfect emotional equilibrium. It is funnier, more heartbreaking, and ultimately more fulfilling than Clubland.

At its heart is the relationship between teenage brothers Thomas (Wakefield) and Charlie (Ford). Charlie is autistic, and with their obstinate, affectionate and heavily pregnant mother (Collette in full-blown mother-mode) largely bedridden, and military-man father (Mollison) hard at work, the demands of caring for him fall increasingly upon Thomas.

It's a frustrating way to spend one's teen-dom — after all, Thomas has his own life to live, and adolescent goals to pursue. Top of the list is local girl Jackie (Ward), who has taken a shine to the cherubic Thomas. The feeling is mutual, but Thomas is concerned that the particular challenges presented by Charlie might scare her off.

The Black Balloon demonstrates tremendous attention to detail. Anyone who was a teenager during the 1990s will feel pangs of recognition at the touches of period authenticity. It's a world where Ratcat is on the radio, and there are wooden clothes pegs on the Hills Hoist. Jackie's bicycle wheels clatter with spoke beads, and she wears a pink Stackhat. At one point, the Mollison family upgrades from a Commodore 64 to a Super Nintendo.

Such window dressing helps evoke Thomas and Charlie's world. The early '90s suburban locale is a tangible and familiar environment, where intolerance and ignorance brood beneath the surface. Thomas' obnoxious class mates, who hurl insults at the local 'special' bus, will make your stomach churn. Even the local adults regard Charlie as something distasteful or pitiable. Ward provides a counterpoint. Jackie is generous and gracious towards Charlie.

This is more than just an assured debut from writer/director Down. It is one of the great and memorable Australian films of recent times. The insight into the life of a family with an autistic child rings true — little surprise, given that Down grew up with an autistic brother. Often there is a weary sense of routine underlying their cheerful interactions with Charlie. Sometimes patience wears down to the nub and family members react in ways they will later regret. These scenes will break your heart, such is the empathy evoked.

Ford deserves awards for his performance. His mannerisms as Charlie are impeccable. He embodies the role so completely that you will laugh with him, be infuriated by him, and love him, sometimes within the space of a scene.

That said, this is unquestionably Wakefield's film. With the wrong actor, Thomas could have come across as a petulant and self-centred teen. But Wakefield wrings every skerrick of sympathy attendant on the character's burden of responsibilities and social awkwardness.

It's not just the difficulty of Thomas' particular situation. Wakefield embodies everything that it is to be a teenager on the brink of adulthood — facing challenges you think you'll never overcome, bearing responsibilities you feel you can't carry, and making mistakes you think you'll never recover from. Of course you do, can and will, and for Thomas, as with any good coming-of-age story, there is a bittersweet happy ending in store.

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Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He was previously a staff writer and film reviewer with The Salvation Army's national editorial department. His articles have been published by Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and the speculative fiction review website ASif!.



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