The Black Balloon is about a family named The Mollisons, who are Simon (Erik Thomson), Maggie (Toni Collette), Charlie (Luke Ford), and Thomas (Rhys Wakefield). Simon, father of the clan, is an Australian army man who has traded in the virility of his youth for a responsible, domestic lifestyle -- his solution for the crisis of masculinity: a transposition of his libido onto a teddy bear he has named Rick. Maggie, who is Simon’s wife and mother to Charlie and Thomas, is busy raising her children and carrying a third (preeclampsia makes life all the more difficult). Charlie, who is roughly 18, was born autistic and lost the ability to use language at an early age. He needs constant supervision and spends most of his time monkeying around, toying with model cars, and playing Super Nintendo. Thomas is a teenage boy who, on occasion, enjoys listening to music.
First-time writer/director Elissa Down has sketched out a family that, no doubt, has its share of struggles. Raising a child with autism or any other advanced mental disability has to be emotionally, psychically, and existentially difficult, and the film shows us as much. It is a damn shame, then, that the filmmaker decides to focus the coming-of-age film around the character with the least amount of personality: Thomas.
By the end of the film, Thomas has learned how to drive, swim, see inside himself (with the aid of his first love Jackie), and accept his brother for who he is. Like the rest of his family members, Thomas has real issues that cannot immediately be laughed off as trite or insignificant. But that doesn’t mean the filmmaker has to showcase the ups and downs of his youth to an audience. The unwitting viewer watches a fairly generic teenager go from shame, to angst, to acceptance; it isn't a terribly enjoyable journey.
Down is a capable storyteller, but there is a richness missing from the narrative, and the film’s emotional content rarely allows for the viewer to become invested in the characters. This is due to the dullness of both the director and her protagonist. Take, for example, the film’s montages. These are achieved in an intellectually lazy, and commercially viable, fashion, and they immediately take the viewer out of the film. Identifiable as either happy or sad, the montages usually show the characters acting in a very silly way while some singer-songwriter giggles about love or broods upon loss. They amount to the director saying to the viewer “Hey, feel [insert emotion] now!” Sadly for the director, this rarely fools the audience, and it is the filmmaker who ends up looking like a dunce.
What we are left with is a film that could be described as pleasant, quaint, indie. A talented ensemble that includes Collette isn’t the only thing this film has in common with Little Miss Sunshine (2006). But unlike The Black Balloon, Little Miss Sunshine succeeds in exploring all of its family members' inner wars. The films come to roughly the same conclusion, but the former’s is more fulfilling because you're not sick of one particular character by the time you get there. Thomas might be a normal boy with real problems, but I’d rather spend my time with his brother Charlie. At least he plays video games.