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.
Dear John (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) and John (Channing Tatum) met over Spring Break and it was love at first sight. Savannah had dreams of opening her own summer camp one day, while John was a soldier who felt like the battlefield was more like his home. In the early stages of their relationship, they promised to write letters to each other and tell each other everything. But over the years, their love for one another (at least from a romantic angle) dissipated because of distance and circumstances. Or maybe they just matured emotionally. I didn’t read Nicholas Sparks’ novel from which the picture was based on but I think the movie was strong as a stand alone. I understand why people (especially fans of the novel) didn’t like the picture either because it didn’t remain loyal enough to its source or they expected that they were in for a typical romantic movie but it turned out to be a depressing journey. But that’s what I liked about it–it still had elements of sappy romance but it was very sad in its core because the characters made certain decisions which they could never take back. I’ve forgotten that Seyfried was the hilariously clueless girl from “Mean Girls” and Tatum was an actor I didn’t particularly care for. I was invested in their characters and by the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen next. I loved watching the characters change over the years and I believed every major change that happened in their lives. Savannah changed from an idealistic young woman seemingly ready to tackle the world to someone who became sort of defeated and almost closed down. Even though we didn’t see her go through difficult times in her life, the way Seyfried played her character made it unnecessary. Meanwhile, John changed from somebody who would rather surf and not talk to anybody (basically, your stereotypical stoic man) to making a real effort in connecting with his autistic father (Richard Jenkins). Although I didn’t care much about the scenes in the army, there were real touching moments especially when John explained to Savannah, through handwritten letters, why he was like a coin and why his relationship with his father was so strained. Fans of movies like “The Notebook” will most likely be disappointed because “Dear John” is not as romantic. In a way, “Dear John” is more of a story of friendship than a story of lovers. I enjoyed “Dear John” because it was so different from what I expected and it had an honesty that made it feel like I was watching a relationship based on something that could potentially happen in real life.
★★★ / ★★★★
A lonely man with Asperger’s syndrome (Hugh Dancy) who recently lost his father found real connection with a teacher named Beth (Rose Byrne) who recently moved into his apartment building. What I loved about this picture was its ability to show the sometimes comical awkwardness of a character who happens to have Asperger’s but still remain sensitive and accurate throughout. With movies that have such sensitive topics, it’s easy to make fun of the person with a condition to get the laughs. In here, his awkwardness was matched with his romatic interest’s because there were times when she, too, did not know what to say or do. I enjoyed the romance angle of this film but what did not work for me as well was the bit about Peter Gallagher’s character being in court. I thought those scenes dragged a bit. Its connection to Adam’s life was not strong enough except for the fact that Beth and her father were often at odds. Still, I’m giving this movie a recommendation because, from what I learned in school and the reviews I read written by Aspies, it was true to life; how their limited social abilities impact a huge portion of their lives such as making friends, finding the right person they want to spend the rest of their life with, being interviewed for a job or making small talk with strangers. The best scenes are those with Dancy and Byrne being in the same room and trying to connect. At times they may have a wall around themselves but when they do decide to let each other in and really talk about what they’re thinking and try to communicate what it is they want, there’s magic and it works as a love story. And there were just times when Adam found it difficult to be in Beth’s shoes or when he took things too literally. Written and directed by Max Mayer, “Adam” was able to successfully show how it was like for a person who could not express himself the way he wanted to to still find acceptance from others as well as himself. There’s a common mindset that people with autism are all the same, they’re all dumb and are less successful than “normal” people. This picture touched on those three mindsets to show that quite the opposite is true. I was very satisfied with the ending because it was realistic but it wasn’t sappy or heavy-handed. The implications it had were quite touching.