This week, and over the next three weeks, I will write a review about each of the Australian Film Institute’s Best Film nominees from the end of 2008 : The Black Balloon, The Jammed, Unfinished Sky and The Square. They are out on DVD now.
In Black Balloon, Thomas is nearly 16. His dad’s in the Army and so they move around a lot; this is already his fifth school. Mum is pregnant with their third child and suffering from high blood pressure as she nears full term. Oh, and his older brother, Charlie is autistic – the body of a 17 year old and a mental age of toddler. All Thomas wants is a normal adolescence.
Thomas is a mass of contradictions. He deeply loves his family and does his share of caring for his brother. He is also highly embarrassed by his brother and goes to great lengths to ‘hide’ him from his classmates, the girl he likes and the neighbours.
This AFI Best Film winner from 2008 draws a lot of experiences from writer/director Elissa Down who has an autistic brother. A lot of the situations of the household in this film either happened to her or are borrowed heavily; such as the funny : Charlie running down the street in his underpants and invading a stranger’s house to go to the toilet; or the mortifying : Charlie conducting a tantrum in the supermarket.
This pressure in Thomas builds as he struggles with the expectation of helping to look after his brother and the guilt of resenting him every step of the way. The ‘explosion’ within Thomas toward the end of the film is both expected and shocking. It is compounded by the fact that it occurs in front of new girlfriend, Jackie (Gemma Ward).
All roles are played with great affection and believability : Rhys Wakefield as Thomas pulls of the difficult role of dutiful son, awkward teenager and boyfriend material. Luke Ford by all accounts spent a great deal of time studying and observing autistic men, his portrayal never falters, nor does it feel forced or a caricature. Toni Collette is superb as always as mum and Erik Thomson balances the dual responsibility of military officer and loving and supportive husband and father.
This is an affectionately told drama that captures the highs and lows of family life. It is very well put together and an Australian film we can be proud of. Recommended. 3½ out of 5.