The Black Balloon is a likeable but somewhat lightweight rites of passage number from Australia that throws Autism into the mix. Rhys Wakefield is teenager Thomas who just wants an ordinary life but is constantly thwarted both by the problems of being an army brat constantly on the move with his father's new postings and of having an autistic brother Charlie who's prone to break into neighbours houses to use the toilet if left unsupervised.
It's obviously a semi-autobiographical number - director Elissa Down has two autistic brothers, and there's definitely the feeling of personal experience rather than mere good intentions to the picture: most of the drama comes from the main character's exacerbated sense of being left outside at times because of the attention his brother needs and by the social stigma of having to take the `looney's bus' to school with his charge. Certainly Luke Ford is convincing enough as the autistic Charlie to convince at first that they've used a real sufferer and Down avoids hitting the audience over the head - while there are uncomfortable scenes such as a tantrum at a supermarket checkout that makes everyone else in the store retreat silently into themselves rather than get involved, there's also a lot of nicely observed humour, such as teachers proving wildly inadequate to the task of breaking up a fight that breaks out at a bus stop or, in one particularly gross out moment, Charlie finding something to eat that he really shouldn't in Thomas' girlfriend's bag.
Yet while it's refreshing that it's partially because of Charlie, the cause of much of his own social awkwardness, that Thomas gets to meet cute with his girlfriend, there's also something a bit too predictable and wishful thinking about the way Thomas' life starts to improve - naturally his girlfriend is the prettiest girl in his lifesaving class and she accepts Charlie almost immediately without any real difficulty. But if that seems at times a bit too cookie-cutter predictable, it's also because Down chooses to accentuate the positive rather than go for ponderous drama. Charlie may be a trial and a high maintenance one at that, but he's part of a well-drawn genuinely loving family (both Toni Colette, as the pregnant mother, and Erik Thomson, as the father, convince completely). Yet at the end of the day there's a bit of a feeling that the film doesn't really go anywhere even if it is a much more enjoyable trip than you were expecting.
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