Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The Black Balloon (2008), a small Australian film from a few seasons ago, was positioned as a story about the effect of autism on a family starring Toni Colette as the long-suffering and loving mother. It is in fact a coming-of-age story and a first-romance story, made luminous by the presence of the former model, Gemma Ward making her first significant acting appearance. (She has since booked a job on the next Pirates of the Caribbean picture.)
The film is really about what it is like to have a special-needs sibling in those critical years when you are becoming who you are going to be. It is a time when one is necessarily self-oriented as you try and shape your identity and the visage you present the world. And a large element in that process is the first person you love who loves you back.
At first, Thomas thinks that giving his autistic brother his love and attention is in conflict with his desire to have a girlfriend. Then he discovers that he was fortunate enough to have picked a girl who understands, who is ready to let Charlie into her life as well. It's not easy to play a person this good, this open-hearted, this accepting of all of life's little complications. When you're young you often believe you're entitled to get things your way--after all, you are just starting out, you haven't made those restricting choices, you haven't messed things up seriously yet. But a mark of maturity is that all of life is coping with the given circumstances. Not compromise, not surrender, but acknowledging the reality of things over which your control is limited.
Gemma Ward as Jackie seems to literally glow from the screen. It helps that she is very fair in a very brown world. But it looks as though there is a light somewhere behind her eyes. It is impossible to imagine being 16 and not falling in love with this girl. And her kindness and generosity to Charlie, the autistic brother, confirms her loveliness inside and out.
Aside from Ms. Ward, the most surprising thing about the film is how far it goes to show how difficult Thomas's life is. At one point, he is so angry with Charlie (because he has upset Jackie) that he rages against Charlie and even punches him. I wonder how many siblings of disabled people have felt that way and never dared admit it. Surprisingly, Thomas retains our sympathy even with this terrible cruelty. To see those violent feelings, out there for all to see, makes you pity Thomas as much as Charles.
The film has modest technique to support its modest goals, which it achieves completely. Toni Collette, who is spot-on brilliant, cannot do a scene less than superbly. The story has a very touching and funny denouement, effecting a complete rapprochement between the brothers. But if The Black Balloon earns a place in film history, it will be because of this first important performance of Gemma Ward.