'6 Balloons': Film Review | SXSW 2018

6 Balloons still - H Publicity 2018
Courtesy of Netflix
Jacobson helps save it from addiction-drama blah-ness.

Abbi Jacobson stars as the sister of a heroin addict (played by Dave Franco) in Marja-Lewis Ryan's drama, which premiered at SXSW.

Taking a break from the giddy antics of her delicious Comedy Central series Broad City, Abbi Jacobson goes persuasively dark as the stressed-out sister of a heroin addict (Dave Franco) in 6 Balloons. The actress is the most compelling reason to seek out this affecting, if not particularly surprising or satisfying drama, which premieres April 6 on Netflix following its recent bow at SXSW.

Written and directed by Marja Lewis-Ryan and based on the experience of producer Samantha Houseman, 6 Balloons has other things to recommend it — most notably, a couple of tense, well-shaped sequences and a vivid nocturnal-L.A.-underbelly vibe. But Ryan often bumps up against the limitations of the subgenre she’s working in. Big and small screens have long been littered with attractively strung-out folks shooting up, writhing through withdrawal, shuffling around rehab and reckoning with loved ones; it's hard to make an addiction narrative feel fresh. Throw in a few amateurishly heavy-handed directorial choices, and 6 Balloons has a lot of baggage to overcome.

What gives the movie a faint glimmer of novelty is that it focuses on the enabler rather than the user. We’re therefore spared, for the most part, the usual visual clichés: the spoon-and-syringe routine, the eyes closing in ecstasy, the first-person images of woozy euphoria. Films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream nailed the transformative power of the high; what 6 Balloons captures, with a kind of gloomy integrity, is the sheer exhaustion of being the closest person to an addict — the draining cycles of anger, guilt and heartbreak, as well as the isolation.

As the film opens, Katie (Jacobson) is navigating a flurry of preparations for a surprise party she’s throwing her boyfriend that evening. With a few deft strokes, the filmmaker suggests the protagonist’s scrupulously responsible, unselfish nature. Opening close-ups show her stricken-looking and listening to a self-help tape, but she puts on a perkier face when she meets up with her mom (Jane Kaczmarek), noting that she’s 15 minutes early. Soon after, a friend asks Katie whether a certain dress is too short for the occasion, and she gently advises, “If you have to ask, maybe it’s not the best choice.” By emphasizing the character’s level-headedness, Ryan raises the stakes, ensuring that we’ll understand, when the time comes, how wrenching it is for Katie to have to violate her own ethical code in order to help her brother.

Katie goes to pick up Seth (Franco) and his 4-year-old daughter Ella (played by twins Charlotte and Madeline Carel), and we sense something’s off as soon as she enters the apartment complex. Ryan shoots Jacobson walking up the stairwell with horror-film trepidation, and hints of dread and resignation flash across Katie’s face when she spots a pile of unopened mail on Seth’s floor.

We quickly learn that Seth is a former heroin addict who has recently relapsed and now finds himself in frantic need of a fix. Deeply unsettled — and annoyed — but ever the dutiful sister, Katie decides to immediately drop him off for a 10-day stint in detox. The first place they try doesn’t accept Seth’s insurance; the second refuses to admit him.

So begins the search for a treatment center — an odyssey complicated by Seth’s intensifying withdrawal symptoms, the agitated child in the back of the car and the birthday boy’s imminent arrival at the party Katie is supposed to be hosting (the increasingly frequent ding-ding of Katie’s incoming messages proves an effective tension-building device).

Two stops along the way — one in Skid Row, where Katie picks up drugs for Seth as he squirms in the car; another when Katie buys a needle from an antagonistic pharmacist — make for the strongest, most harrowing stretches of the movie. It’s in these sequences that Ryan’s filmmaking rises above a certain indie-drama ho-hum-ness (lots of handheld camerawork and images that drift in and out of focus): Especially haunting is an overhead shot in the pharmacy bathroom that juxtaposes Katie changing Ella’s diaper with Seth shooting up in a stall — a bluntly powerful tableau of the addict/enabler dynamic.

Jacobson and Franco have a lived-in sibling rapport, careening from affectionate jokiness to scorching resentment and back again. Wisely, Jacobson doesn’t repress her comic instincts, as many comedians do in dramatic parts (to often tedious effect); she channels them into the character, letting Katie’s anxiety leak out in quippy starts and stops. And though drugged-out desperation is a familiar beat to play, Franco brings his own boyishly needy edge to the role. We get why Katie has such a hard time practicing the “tough” half of “tough love” with him.

Ryan’s major misstep is the water motif she incorporates via audio snippets of Katie’s self-help tape (it’s all about whether or not to “board the boat,” or something), sound design (periodic bubbly, under-the-sea noises) and thuddingly literal glimpses of the two main characters submerged. It’s a jarringly on-the-nose, student-film-level element that’s superfluous to the movie’s story and impact.

What stays with you is Jacobson’s grippingly understated lead turn, which promises a fruitful screen life beyond Broad City.

Production companies: Campfire, Free Association
Distributor: Netflix
Writer-director: Marja-Lewis Ryan
Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Dave Franco, Charlotte Carel, Madeline Carel, Maya Erskine, Dawan Owens, Jen Tullock, Lisa Bierman, Pierce Minor, Heidi Sulzman, Tim Matheson, Jane Kaczmarek
Producers: Samantha Houseman, Ross M. Dinerstein, Reid Carolin, Peter Kiernan, Channing Tatum
Executive producers: Ian Bricke, Lynette Howell Taylor
Cinematographer: Polly Morgan
Music: Heather McIntosh
Editor: Brian Scofield
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald
Casting: John McAlary
Venue: SXSW Film Festival

74 minutes