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The Black Balloon

The Black Balloon Directed by: Elissa Down Cast: Toni Collette, Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Gemma Ward Running Time: 1 hr 35 min Rating: PG-13

Plot: Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield) moves to a new town with his family, including pregnant mother Maggie (Toni Collette) and an autistic brother (Luke Ford). He desperately wants to fit in at his new high school, but finds it hard. Having a brother on the "spastic" bus doesn't help. Until he befriends Jackie Masters (Gemma Ward), an alarmingly beautiful girl with a compassionate heart.

Who’s It For? A coming of age movie for people who are sick of coming of age movies (like me). Also, anyone who every really wanted a Super NES.

Expectations: I'd read a good review, but didn't know much about it other than it was about a family with an autistic son.



Rhys Wakefield as Thomas Mollison: Thomas wants to be a normal team, which means that he wants to be popular and have the hottest girlfriend. But he feels like an outsider due to the emotional maturity he's gathered from having a severely autistic brother. Wakefield plays what could be a tired role but acts like he's doing it for the first time. The heart of this story lies with Thomas' desire to be good to his loving brother, despite his anger and frustration at never being able to be really carefree. Wakefield has a gift for being genuine, my belief in the film hinged on caring for Thomas, and I did. I expect great things from him. Score: 7

Toni Collette as Maggie Mollison: Collette makes Maggie a fierce mother. Maggie loves her sons and feels like a lioness, protecting her cubs. In the hands of someone else, this may seem like nothing new. But Collette is so amazing. She projects mother love. She's not the central character, but without her I don't think I'd believe the rest of the film so completely. Give her an Oscar finally! Score: 9

Luke Ford as Charlie Mollison: Ford plays the autistic son. I'd imagine it's a hard role to play, and I had to believe Ford's performance. And I did, completely. For a young actor, he does an amazing job of throwing himself into the role. Like an enormous three year old, Charlie barrels through the film wreaking havoc while trying to be good and please his family. Ford displays every passing emotion Charlie feels. I could understand why his family protects him so fiercely. Score: 9

Gemma Ward as Jackie Masters: Every coming of age movie needs a girl (at least if it's about a boy, or a lesbian) and Ward plays Thomas' objet d'amour. She certainly looks the part, the girl's skin glows and her eyes won't stop sparkling. But beyond looking beautiful, she doesn't do much. In the scene where she's meant to be pouring her heart out to Thomas, I just kept wondering how her eyebrows were plucked so perfectly. So maybe I missed the point. In a film where the rest of the acting is so strong, hers is just an adequate performance. Score: 6

Talking: From Charlie's outbursts to Thomas' inability to articulate his feelings, the dialogue feels real. No one spouts exposition or tries to encapsulate the movie, each character just exists as who he or she is in the moment. Score: 8

Sights: The Mollisons move to a typical, Australian suburb, which doesn't look much different from a typical American suburb. The scenery is pretty much what you'd expect. Nothing terribly exciting here. Still, I'm glad they chose to focus on the story rather than looking pretty. Score: 6

Sounds: Some good pop songs in there, I heard the Go-Betweens and got a little excited. Score: 7


Best Scene: Charlie masturbates under the table during Thomas' birthday dinner, freaking out Jackie. So Thomas goes crazy and destroys Charlie's Super NES, leading to an all out family brawl. That scene, combined with the following scene in the hospital, where Charlie gets stitched up and Thomas holds the baby, really shows the highs and lows of this family.

Ending: Thomas seems to finally find peace with his brother. I didn't realize until I saw it, but that's exactly what I wanted. The ending works perfectly.

Questions: How much should you give up for your family? Can you ever really love someone for who they are instead of despite who they are?

Rewatchability: The subject matter is serious, but the tone is light overall, and I left feeling good. You could definitely watch this again, on DVD or TV.


When Hollywood makes a film about someone with a disability, it tends to be grandiose and tragic. This film focuses on the day to day mundane aspects of living with someone who is different. Down made a beautiful film about character growth. The pleasure in this film comes from watching a family who love one another try to make good decisions. It's a totally simple idea, but one that must be hard to pull of well, since you don't see a lot of films where it works. Collette, Wakefield and Ford all give really great performances. By the end, I loved them and their family.

Final Score: 8/10


32nd Portland International Film Festival - Audience Awards