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The Black Balloon

Like most kids, Thomas just wants to fit in or at the very least slip under the radar so that he doesn't stand out and get made fun of. This proves hard to do when his pregnant mother Maggie (Toni Collette) is forced onto bed rest and his father Simon (Erik Thomson) puts him in charge of Charlie. Almost immediately Charlie causes more than his usual share of trouble. He plays with his own feces at the house and then escapes one day to run half naked down the street to pee in a neighbor's bathroom where the cutest girl in Thomas' class just happens to be taking a shower. But the girl, Jackie (Gemma Ward), ends up liking Thomas anyway, or maybe because of the special circumstances of his life.

Rhys Wakefield and Gemma Ward in The Black Balloon (NeoClassics Films)

The Black Balloon opens with an obvious bit of symbolism as a happy bouquet of balloons heads skyward while the one black one brings up the rear and drifts separately. Charlie's that black balloon while Thomas is trying to hang with all the happy brightly colored "normal" kids. The fact that it's balloons, though, signals how filmmaker Elissa Down is trying to keep the tone predominantly light despite a serious message. For the most part the film's tone is good-natured and tinged with humor as it tackles the very real problems of living with an autistic child (although to be accurate, Charlie is more like a young adult in terms of his age and size). The film deserves praise for trying more than most films to show what these real hardships and challenges are, and how they can tax the family's patience. The father grows short-tempered with Charlie at the store, and Thomas resorts to violence to deal with his frustrations with his brother. The film shows that it's not easy and Charlie is not always a charming chap. He can genuinely be difficult and infuriatingly hard to manage. In the press notes, Down says she had firsthand experience with autistic children, and the film does seem to have the feel of someone who has had to deal with such children. This film offers up a more realistic portrait of living with mentally challenged youth than the recent Introducing the Dwights , which was also made in Australia.

But The Black Balloon also falls victim to the warm and fuzzy softness that usually plagues these kinds of films. The film begins to explore the conflicted feelings of love and frustration that the family feels but it pulls back from any real hard choices or in depth examination. In particular, Jackie seems a little too ready to accept all the problems of dating a boy with an autistic brother. The film ends on a note of bright cheeriness but steers just clear of saccharine ickiness -- but only barely.

Toni Collette (who also serves as one of the film's producers) and Gemma Ward in The Black Balloon (NeoClassics Films)

The acting is all fine. But only Wakefield's Thomas feels fully grounded in the real world, and struggling with real problems. Ward is sweet and lovely as the all-too-understanding girlfriend but she's convincing nonetheless. Actress Toni Collette makes the mother the steadfast center of the family, and she endows the character with a seemingly endless supply of patience. Collette also serves as one of the film's producers.

The Black Balloon (rated PG-13 for some sexual content, a scene of violence, and brief strong language) dances around more serious issues but prefers to keep its coming of age film mostly a warm family comedy.

Companion viewing: Inside Out (short documentary), Tim, Oasis

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