Dir: Elissa Down Aust. 2007, 97 mins
The Black Balloon is notable for its graphic, not-for-the-squeamish depiction of adult autism. But, more importantly for its box office potential, the youth-oriented movie introduces a glowing young Australian actress with true star potential - the international model Gemma Ward. Plus there's a showy performance from Luke Ford, soon to be seen as Brendan Fraser's son in Mummy 3.
Well marketed after its world premiere at Berlin where it is set to open the Generation 14plus section on February 8, the film and its young leads will attract considerable attention. It opens in Australia March 6.
Director/co-writer Elissa Down describes her debut feature as 'an insider's view of autism'. She grew up with two brothers who have the condition and there's a compassionate honesty in the movie's full-on depiction of the havoc and embarrassment of a family trapped in a seemingly impossible situation. Forget the cuteness of Rain Man autism: The Black Balloon shows an altogether tougher set of sibling challenges. Fortunately there's plenty of humour.
Charlie Mollison (the tall, unrestrained Ford) is out of control with severe autism plus Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He's also an 'elective mute'. Constantly rocking, giggling, humming, his fingers wandering, Charlie defecates on the carpet of the family home and runs near-naked through the neighbourhood. Is this the most mentally disadvantaged character ever portrayed in a commercial film'
The Mollison family has just moved into the area. Simon, the father (Thomson), is an army man, moving from base to base; Maggie, the very pregnant mother (Collette), is fiercely protective of her difficult autistic son but now she's ill and increasingly distracted. 15 year old Thomas (Wakefield) loves his unpredictable elder brother but finds him an increasingly irritating burden after meeting blonde, blue-eyed neighbour Jackie (Ward).
Astonishingly good-looking, Jackie seems at first to have been parachuted into the community from another planet. But Gemma Ward has the very essence of star quality: you can't take your eyes off her. Her direct and natural charm is affecting, suggesting a big future in film acting. She has already completed a support role in The Strangers, a slasher story with Liv Tyler, due out later in 2008.
Luke Ford, heading next for the Mummy franchise, lets rip as Charlie. Without playing for sympathy (and without one recognisable word of dialogue) he inhabits the character's weird aloneness. There are no real solutions to this intractable family problem. Aussie TV soap star Wakefield is handsomely intense as Thomas. Toni Collette gives another of her warm, full-blooded portraits.
First-time director Down expertly handles her mix of tyro and established actors. Her camera prowls the packed family home. A climactic birthday party is particularly well staged, with a long and uncompromising family fight that goes on and on.
Veteran producer Miall (Strictly Ballroom) craftily oversees a low budget. Set in the suburban Early 90s, loving production design and costumes are particularly fine. The lively soundtrack is packed with new and old songs. A co-writing and co-producer credit goes to someone listed as Jimmy the Exploder.
Black Balloon Productions
Australian Film Commission
NSW Film & Television Office
Aust/NZ dist: Icon Distribution
Icon Entertainment International
'Jimmy The Exploder'