Dir. Elissa Down. Australia. 2008

Talking Pictures alias







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If love means accepting someone the way that they are and the way that they are not, the biggest test of that love may come if you must spend your life with an individual that is so disabled that they require constant attention to ensure their safety and that of others. Such is the case for the parents and siblings of Charlie Mollison (Luke Ford) in first-time director Elissa Down's The Black Balloon, the story of a family that has to muster all of its strength to cope with their disabled son Charlie. Charlie is now a teenager but his mental age is around two. Unable to speak or communicate with other than grunts and sign language, he is not only autistic but suffers from attention deficit disorder with hyperactive tendencies.  

Because his father Simon (Erik Thomson) is a soldier who must move often, Charlie and his family have recently moved to Sydney, Australia. This means a new period of adjustment for all, but mostly for fifteen-year-old Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), a shy teenager who has the additional task of looking after his brother while his mother Maggie (Toni Collette) is pregnant. Life for the Mollisons is not easy or pleasant and the director does not try to sugar-coat it. Students at the high school make disparaging remarks when Charlie's bus drops Thomas off at school, neighbors are upset enough to call the authorities when Charlie sits outside in the yard and pounds a wooden spoon while moaning, and Thomas has to run through the streets chasing Charlie when he bursts out the door in his underwear and barges into a stranger's house.  

Not much is shown of Thomas' life at school except for his swimming class, an activity that Thomas can barely manage. Things begin to brighten, however, when he meets Jackie (Gemma Ward) in swim class. Jackie takes an interest in him and is open and understanding about the hardships of his family situation, even though he feels like he must hide Charlie in his room when Jackie comes to the house. Jackie, however, is sympathetic when Thomas reacts with outbursts of uncontrolled anger after Charlie spoils his birthday party.  

Beautifully photographed by Denson Baker, The Black Balloon is no Rain Man or Gilbert Grape. There are no savants here. Having been raised with two autistic brothers, Downs' film is authentic and moving, a powerful, unsentimental cry from the heart filled with impeccable performances that allow us to feel every minute of the family's ordeal. Though the film may leave us shaken, it also can leave us wiser if we realize that regardless of the circumstances, our lives can be enriched if we learn to give of ourselves not out of condescension and duty but out of love. 

Grateful for Jackie's patience, Thomas begins to include Charlie in his life and attempts to forge a loving bond, providing the film's most touching moment when he participates with Charlie in a musical performed by Charlie's class. As he embarks on a journey of self discovery, Thomas knows that there will be times when he rejoices in seeing his brother happy and other times when he aches for his freedom. At times like these, he can only trust in the fact that “the universe is born of love and in love it remains”, understanding that, in the words of Vivekananda, “All beings great or small, are equally manifestations of the divine, the difference is only in the degree of manifestation.”


Howard Schumann

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