The Black Balloon

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Thursday, March 6
Australia, New Zealand

SYDNEY -- Much has been made of supermodel Gemma Ward's doll-like features, but there's nothing plastic about her debut performance in the charming Australian indie "The Black Balloon."

Ward's presence, in a part written specifically for her by director Elissa Down and collaborator Jimmy Jack, will draw the curious to this warm-hearted dramedy about a boy coming of age in the unpredictable shadow of an autistic older brother. But the ease and spontaneity Ward displays onscreen mark her as more than a one-hit wonder.

Beyond showcasing a new talent, "Black Balloon" boasts a host of naturalistic performances, including a strong turn by Toni Collette as the boys' demonstrative mother. The ensemble's easy interactions, coupled with a sincere, unsentimental script, make this one of the most genuinely enjoyable films out of Australia in years. It should take off with teens and adults in many markets. The film, which debuted last month at the Berlin International Film Festival, is being released locally today.

Co-writer Down drew on her experiences living with two autistic brothers to convey the frustrations of 15-year-old Thomas Mollison (soap star Rhys Wakefield), whose awkward transition to adulthood is made exponentially more difficult by the willful antics of his severely autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford.)

The Mollisons are an army family. We first meet Thomas attempting to fit in at yet another new school while trying to avoid making a fool of himself at the weekly swim classes, where he first catches the eye of the gorgeous, slightly gawky Jackie (Ward).

Their budding romance is put to the test when Thomas' father, Simon (Erik Thomson), orders bed rest for his heavily pregnant wife, Maggie (Collette), and the teen is charged with looking after Charlie. Charlie, who also suffers from ADD, can be as badly behaved as a particularly badly behaved 2-year-old.

The quirky Mollisons approach Charlie-wrangling with an irreverent sense of humor, but the task is an onerous one, especially for Thomas. Charlie's public tantrums and the casual cruelty of strangers leave him squirming with teenage embarrassment. With a beautiful girl to impress, his shame and seething resentment boil over in a series of explosive confrontations.

The appeal of the script is that it presents authentically conflicted characters with a depth and complexity rare in recent local product. Jackie, for example, shows a mature acceptance of the challenges Charlie poses yet can't help recoiling at some of his more confronting behavior. The fine sense of play Ward brings to the character allows her to fit in with the unorthodox Mollisons and help defuse situations with a quip.

Down has opted for an elevating take on what could have been bleak and gritty fare, and cinematographer Denson Baker follows suit with sunny compositions shot at the height of the Australian summer.

THE BLACK BALLOON
Black Balloon Prods.
Credits:
Director: Elissa Down
Screenwriters: Elissa Down, Jimmy Jack
Producer: Tristram Miall
Executive producers: Anita Belgiorno-Nettis, Sally Chesher, Toni Collette, Mark Gooder
Director of photography: Denson Baker
Production designer: Nick McCallum
Music: Michael Yezerski
Costume designer: Claire Granville
Editor: Veronica Jenet
Cast:
Maggie: Toni Collette
Jackie: Gemma Ward
Thomas: Rhys Wakefield
Charlie: Luke Ford
Simon: Erik Thomson
Running time -- 97 minutes
No MPAA rating
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