An adolescent boy (Rhys Wakefield), with the help of his girlfriend (Gemma Ward), tries to accept his autistic brother.
Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Gemma Ward
Early in "The Black Balloon," when a cluster of red helium balloons floats across the sky, followed by a solitary black one, it seems obvious whom the title of the sweetly eccentric Australian import refers to.
It has to be Charlie (Luke Ford), the autistic teenage son of Maggie and Simon Mollison (Toni Collette and Erik Thomson), first seen sitting cross-legged in the grass, banging on the ground with a wooden spoon and moaning like a didgeridoo. Unable to communicate except through sign language, and with attention-deficit disorder to boot, he's the quintessential outsider, an embarrassment forever untethered from everyone else.
At least Charlie seems that way to younger brother Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), who is about turn 16 in a town he has just moved to with his military father and very pregnant mother, now confined to bed. The last thing Thomas needs is to be saddled with the duty of babysitting Charlie, a man-child who is still prone to tantrums and such other forms of inappropriate behavior as entering strangers' homes to use the toilet.
One of those toilets belongs to Jackie (Gemma Ward), a drop-dead gorgeous if slightly geeky schoolmate of Thomas's given to exclaiming "wowie" and riding around town on a banana-seat bike outfitted with plastic noisemakers on the spokes. Thomas and Jackie's friendship, blossoming into a chaste romance, is the dramatic engine that powers "The Black Balloon," but it's far from the most important relationship in the film.
Of equal weight is the bond between the two brothers. Growing up in a family in which your father talks to a teddy bear named Rex and your parents engage in open bedroom banter must make Thomas feel, at times, like as much of a black balloon as his brother.
As with that poetic image that opens the film, though, what at first seems like a burden -- the stigma of difference -- proves to be filled with an uplifting lesson: We're all alone together.
-- Michael O'Sullivan (May 1, 2009)
Contains crude language, a violent altercation and sexual content.