The Black Balloon (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The Mollison family (led by Toni Collette and Erik Thomson) was new to the neighborhood. Upon their arrival, neighbors couldn’t help but stare because Charlie (Luke Ford) had autism. One of the kids voiced out what the onlooking adults might be thinking. Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) defended his older brother. He initially thought that moving into a new house was an opportunity for him to start anew. He wanted to make friends or maybe even get a girlfriend (Gemma Ward). Just as quickly, he realized that perhaps nothing would change. He was still torn between wanting to lead a life of normalcy and his family’s expectations concerning Charlie’s condition. Written and directed by Elissa Down, “The Black Balloon” had moments of painful honesty but only to be watered down by a typical romance often found in coming-of-age movies. The best scenes were the ones that wanted us to feel uncomfortable. For instance, when Charlie acted out in a supermarket, it was when we had a chance to truly feel Thomas’ resentment toward his brother. Yes, he was embarrassed because of the other customers’ stares and misguided judgments but the point was for us to realize that even though he lived with Charlie, Thomas, like most us, didn’t really understand the mysterious condition that is autism. Another scene that supported Thomas’ lack of understanding was when he tried to teach Charlie to speak “like a normal person.” Unfortunately, just when the film was about to come into its own, the material had focused its attention on Thomas’ attempt at getting a girlfriend. Were we supposed to believe that the only way that Thomas would find happiness was for him to get a girl? It seemed too easy and transparent a solution. For me, since we saw the film through Thomas’ eyes, it should have been about his coming to terms with his brother’s condition, even in the smallest way, and realizing that it was okay for him to sacrifice more than his peers and that life is indeed unfair. Not once did I see him pick a book or ask a question in order to educate himself about how he could further help his brother. He resulted to using force. I was also waiting for the movie to acknowledge that autism had varying degrees of severity. For those who aren’t as knowledgeable about the disorder, I’m afraid they might interpret people with autism as having explosive personalities, cannot function well in society, and that it is uncommon for them to return affection. That isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, I knew that “The Black Balloon” had good intentions. It was at its best when it highlighted people’s prejudice toward people with disorders that we don’t fully understand yet. Like Thomas, it just needed to sort out its priorities.