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
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