The Black Balloon, 97 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 6 March 2008


For many people, most of what they know about autism came from the movie Rain Man. But autism is a 'spectrum syndrome' – it has many different degrees and manifestations. Tasmania's Martin Bryant, sentenced to prison for life without parole after being found guilty of 35 counts of murder after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, suffered from Asperger syndrome – a variety of autism.  According to Melbourne-based geneticist Martin Delatycki of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (interviewed on ABC Radio 702 Sydney on 11 January 2008), some milder forms of autism are actually socially beneficial. For example, it would be helpful to a medical researcher to be obsessive about collecting data and maintaining records.

A new Australian film, The Black Balloon, deals with some of the issues faced by a family raising a teenaged son (Charlie) with a more extreme form of autism. But it does so as a comedy, with the story told from the point of view of a younger brother, Thomas, aged 15 going on 16.

As the film opens the family is moving house, which means a new school, and the problem of fitting in for young Thomas (Rhys Wakefield from TV’s Home and Away). The exceptional nature of Thomas’ predicament is immediately obvious. Brother Charlie (Luke Ford from the Australian film Kokoda) announces the family’s arrival to the new neighbourhood by sitting on the front lawn, banging a wooden spoon and wailing.

Thomas hates Charlie, but he wishes he didn’t.  There’s no sugarcoating here. Thomas has to deal with Charlie’s extraordinarily embarrassing behaviour (he loves to run around in his underpants, and worse), while at the same time negotiating all the other social difficulties of a teenager.

The Black Balloon has been selected for the 58th Berlin International Film Festival (Generation 14plus  section) running from February 7 – 17 this year. It seems an ideal film for families with teenagers, because it deals intelligently and compassionately with teenage issues, and at the same time it is funny and gruesome in equal measures.  At times it is hard to watch: there are some quite confronting scenes as Charlie “misbehaves”, and people try to deal with him. The climax – involving Thomas and his Dad -– is very tough. And yet every minute rings true.

When, later, I read about the making of the film, I saw the reason for its integrity and authenticity: the director and co-writer, Elissa Down, grew up in a family with 2 autistic brothers. This is her first feature film, though she has made many short films that have screened at festivals worldwide (including Sydney’s Tropfest).

The meaning of the film’s title isn’t spelled out on screen, but the director has said it is “a metaphor for a ‘different’ childhood filled with moments of chaos, joy and sadness for what may have been”.

The film also features Toni Colette as Maggie, mother of Thomas and Charlie. Maggie is wonderful with Charlie, but you can see in her face the toll it takes on her. Now she is pregnant with dangerously high blood pressure, so she has to delegate most of her duties to husband Simon (Eric Thomson from Somersault) and son Thomas, which turns up the dial on the family pressure-cooker. Toni Colette was also executive producer of the film.

Rounding out the cast is Australian super-model Gemma Ward, who plays Thomas’ potential love-interest, Jackie.  She’s good, but this brings me to my main criticism of the film.  Thomas and Jackie are supposed to be 15 or 16, yet the actors that play them are 19 and 20 respectively. The years between 16 and 19 are usually pretty dynamic ones developmentally and I’m afraid it shows in this film. Thomas wears really short shorts (no one else does) and Jackie, who is extremely tall, rides a bicycle that is ludicrously small for her. The effect is faintly ridiculous. But their acting just about carries them through.

The film has a wonderful sticky Australian summer feel – so much so that I checked the end credits to see if it was filmed on location in a Queensland army town like Townsville.  I was wrong – it was filmed in Sydney’s western suburbs, in Holdsworthy. It’s an authentic Australian experience.