Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Review: The Black Balloon

I'm branching out a little. I've covered a couple of books about Autism/Aspergers (with more to come) and now I'll be adding the occasional "spectrum" movie review. The movie reviews won't be "remembering" films I've seen, I'll be re-watching things and re-evaluating in the light of my present moods/feelings and also current political/social trends.

Today's review is The Black Balloon, which I watched for the first time last night.

The Black Balloon (2008)
Director: Elissa Down
Writer: Elissa Down, Jimmy Jack
Starring: Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Erik Thomson, Gemma Ward, Sarah Woods
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 90%

The Black Balloon is an Australian film about a family with a late-teen severely autistic child. The story is told mostly from the point of view of his "normal" brother and covers the problems with fitting into a new area and acceptance both within the family and within the community.

The Good
It's very obvious that the cast and crew are familiar with autism. In fact, writer/director Elissa Down has two brothers on the spectrum (and one NT brother). She mentions in the featurette that some of the more outlandish things in the film actually did happen in her family. Actor Luke Ford spent quite a bit of time with one of Elissa's brothers and I think he's got the performance nailed.

It's good to see that the story doesn't present the hollywood stereotype of the autistic savant. Instead, Charlie is an individual who embodies the majority of the qualities you'd see in anyone in a similar position on the spectrum. He's just as frustrating as most severely autistic people in that he has good and bad periods and that sometimes, for no apparent reason, the good period slides into the bad.

It's also good to see that in between the stimming and generally hyperactive behaviour, Charlie is shown as a person with the full range of emotions - it's a subtle performance but it's there if you look for it. He's shown as loving, particularly to his mother, played by Toni Collette and to his brother. His sense of humour comes out, as does his frustration.

The Bad
If I have any issues with the film, it's mostly that at times it becomes a little saccharine. The family is just too tolerant and too loving. The school friend, played by Gemma Ward is also too understanding to be real. There was also a social worker scene which went nowhere, it looked like it was going to provide an interesting spin on the story but instead, it was just dropped - I wanted more.

The Message
One of the main reasons I want to review films on the subject of Autism and Aspergers is to look at the messages which are being sent out to the general public. In the case of this film, the ultimate message is about acceptance and love.

At times, the film delves into "Autism Speaks" territory giving us an insider's view of the impact of autism on the family. Of course, the film doesn't want us to dwell on the burden and I suspect that this is the reason why the family is portrayed as a little too perfect/understanding. It's painful to watch the impact that Charlie is having on his family but at the same time, his parents and ultimately his brother show us that it's not about tolerance or even simple acceptance, it's about love.

There's so much in this film from it's throw-away lines, such as the father's message to "quitters"....

Thomas Mollison: Dad do you ever wish Charlie was normal.
Simon Mollison: All I know is he's my own, and you're weak if you don't look after your own

To the message for those who see only despair....

Jackie Masters: Close your eyes, what do you see?
Thomas Mollison: Black.
Jackie Masters: Look harder.

It's highly recommended viewing.


eaucoin said...

I think this branching out is a great idea. Movies reflect the culture and it's really interesting to see what's being put out there in terms of information about autism. I wonder if the reason the story was made with this saccharine quality is because the producers of it were afraid of presenting autism in a way that makes the reality seem very harsh. There was a lot of backlash against Autism Speaks when they presented autism as a tragedy. It seems as though there may be some standard of political correctness applied to any story about us now. If this movie only creates myths about how we're treated, while dispelling myths about how we behave, it's still going to educate people. You know how it is in real life, more brave beginnings than happy endings, but that’s not what most people want to see when they’re looking for entertainment.

Hartley said...

I will see if I can't find this movie to rent here in the states.

Can you tell me what it is rated? Might it be a good watch for my NT child (seeing as his brother is on the spectrum)? I know your stance on movies, but I am a little more strict about ratings. LOL : )

Thank you for the insight--having any movie portray ASD in a realistic light (even half way) is worth viewing in my book.

Thank you!

Gavin Bollard said...

Thanks for highlighting the fact that I need to put ratings on my summary.

The film is rated;
- M in Australia (Recommended for 15+ but permissible to anyone).
- 15 in the United Kingdom.
- PG-13 in the United States for some sexual content, a scene of violence, and brief strong language

The IMDB Parents page lists the scenes which affect the rating. It actually sounds a lot worse than it is on that page, but at least it's honest.

There's a "smeared bum" shot, some swearwords and some minor violence (punching).

I've had a bit of trouble locating the film on Amazon US, apparently it's not yet on DVD over there. It was released cinematically on April 10, 2009 in the US.

I'm contacting the Writer/Director to find out if and when there are US DVD Release plans. At the very least, they should release a Region-Free NTSC version.

I'll let you know when I find anything out.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Probably my favourite part of The Black Balloon is the school play at the end, when the children go into the jungle. I enjoyed reading a story about one of the actors in February 2008, shortly before the movie was about to come out. She played a lioness and worked in a library (in real life).

Also the film was set during the early 1990s recession, when it was hard for neurotypicals (like Thomas) to get jobs. So the latest it was set was probably 1991.

Stephanie said...

The Black Balloon is showing up on Netflix, but it's a "Save".

Saray said...

Greetings from Spain! :) This movie looks fantastic. I am anticipating a hard time finding it here in Spain but maybe I can catch it online. I have done volunteering work with autistic kids and this is a subject close to my heart.
Glad to have stumbled upon your blog! Count me among your readers from now on :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling us about this movie. I'm watching it right now - don't have much time, so I'm watching it 20 or so minutes at a time, and I've found it accurate in its portrayal of autism so far.

Anonymous said...

I do have one question, though, Gavin, and I'm wondering if you're able to help me with it. Why are people with severe autism always portrayed as wearing sleeveless t-shirts and small shorts? I've noticed this in the Black Balloon, other media portrayals of autism, and actual autistics in the flesh. I am assuming that they are unable to dress themselves, so their caretakers dress them in such a manner, but why? Is it a sensory issue? The same applies to children with down syndrome, it seems.

Gavin Bollard said...

I don't think that it's safe to assume that children and adults are unable to dress themselves. Such behaviour is often learned over time.


Extremely autistic people often have fixations on clothes and like to wear the same things all the time. They're often provided with clothes which are easy to get into (singlets and shorts) and which are easy to change in case of accidents.

My kids seem to have a fixation on winter clothing. It will be 35 degrees celcius out there and I'll tell them to find something and wear it. They'll usually come down with a long sleeved T-shirt and long pants.

My wife generally has a fit over this and makes them get changed. I don't. I accept it. They'll get hot but it's the best way for them to learn.

My eldest is starting to think about such things. I say... "wait, before you go upstairs to get changed... think about the weather. Is it hot or cold outside? What type of clothes should you wear?"

He's improving but then he's AS rather than extremely autistic.

Of course, the problem could simply be the Hollywood stereotype of challenged people.

Gavin Bollard said...

Update: The Black Balloon will be released on DVD in the US on 23rd March 2010.

The Black Balloon DVD on Amazon

mentr said...

If you would like to make another movie review on autism one day.

New limited movie called "Adam" about a guy with asperger´s. This would be a more severe case of aspergers in my opinion.