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The Black Balloon

An autistic sibling teaches valuable life lessons in the alternately soft and intense Oz family-friendly drama.

Cast:
With: Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Gemma Ward, Erik Thomson, Toni Collette.

An autistic sibling teaches valuable life lessons in the alternately soft and intense family-friendly drama “The Black Balloon.” Yarn good-naturedly tackles the complex reality of living with a disabled person head-on, and auds are fully encouraged to experience the conflicted feelings of its sensitive teen protagonist. Fans of Toni Collette (also co-exec producing) will help respectable returns float in from the niche family entertainment sphere, and ancillary will be durable. Following pic’s preem as the opener of Berlin’s Generation 14plus section, fests with teen sidebars will want to tie this down.

Fresh from Northern Australia, good-looking teen army brat Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield) arrives with his family at their new home on Sydney’s outskirts. Thomas’ clan consists of his soldiering father, Corp. Simon Mollison (Erik Thomson), pregnant mother Maggie (Collette) and autistic (and willfully mute) brother Charlie (Luke Ford). Despite a wacky, loving environment, Thomas is worn down by constant uprooting and his brother’s mental condition.

An outlandish episode in which Charlie runs off finishes with both boys half-naked in the home of comely high schooler Jackie Masters (Gemma Ward). Ejected by the girl’s father, Thomas finds his embarrassment compounded by his attraction to his new school chum.

Initially wary, Jackie finds Thomas similarly appealing, and unlike her scornful, juvenile peers, she’s also won over (platonically) by Charlie’s spontaneous and uninhibited personality. Romance blossoms between Jackie and Thomas, but tensions arise when it surfaces that Thomas is ashamed of Charlie’s condition.

Scenario totters on the edge of the saccharine sweetness that mars many teen pics, but the yarn is wisely uncompromising in its portrayal of the dilemmas that can arise with mentally ill children. Deftly maintaining a wholesome tone, occasional ventures into near-grotesquery, such as an explosive family argument, reveal this to be one brave little film.

Collette acts as an anchor for the ensemble, but the young leads credibly hold their own onscreen. In his difficult and occasionally unsympathetic role, Wakefield admirably carries the burden of aud identification and squeamishness, while model-cum-actress Ward is convincing as the open-minded Jackie. Ford feels authentic as the autistic Charlie and foregoes any of the excesses that blights most portrayals of disabilities on film.

According to press notes, director/co-scripter Elissa Down has firsthand experience with autistic children, and the compassionate script feels true in its depiction of both autism and adolescent resentment.

Lensing aims for a sun-bleached quality, which undermines the pic’s solid production values and makes it look low-budget. All other credits are pro.

Title, suggesting something joyful tinged with mourning, is never addressed directly, though is is unobtrusively represented visually in one shot.

The Black Balloon

Australia-U.K.

Production: An Icon Film Distribution release (in Australia) of a Film Finance Corp. Australia, Black Balloon Prods. (Australia)/Icon Entertainment Intl. (U.K.) presentation of a Black Balloon production, in association with the New South Wales Film & TV Office, Australian Film Commission, Anita and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis. (International sales: Icon, London.) Produced by Tristram Miall. Co-producers, Sally Ayre-Smith, Elissa Down, Jimmy the Exploder, Mark Turnbull. Co-executive producers, Anita Belgiorno-Nettis, Sally Chesher, Toni Collette, Mark Gooder. Directed by Elissa Down. Screenplay, Down, Jimmy the Exploder.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Denson Baker; editor, Veronica Jenet; music, Michael Yezerski; production designer, Nick McCullum; sound (Dolby Digital), Ben Osmo. Reviewed at the Reel Room, Sydney, Jan. 9, 2008. (In Berlin Film Festival — Generation 14plus, opener.) Running time: 97 MIN.

With: With: Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Gemma Ward, Erik Thomson, Toni Collette.

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