Sunday, 1 February 2009

“The Black Balloon”. A Review Of The Elissa Down Film on DVD (Released in Australia in March 2008).



"...another man's Hell."

As 50-year old parents of an 18-year Autistic son, the better half and I sat down to watch "The Black Balloon" with an open mind. She thought it was honest, true to life and moving - I thought it was brutal, clinically exploitive and deeply hurtful to those of us who actually have to live with - and grow old with - this difficult condition.

First up - Autism doesn't sell - so the cover of the DVD slyly tries to pan it off as a teenage love story - when most of movie is dominated by the lead character's Autistic brother whose inappropriate, but unintentional outbursts make life for him, his parents and their family - a living hell.

This is an Icon Production - Mel Gibson's company - and I've found his movies bludgeon you over the head in order to extract emotion. If he can't gore it up, he'll hurt it up. As other reviewers have pointed out, the brother's behaviour is wild (rubbing excrement into the carpet, punch outs at home, tantrums in supermarkets) - some of which does happen, but most doesn't. No experienced parents would take their son to such situations precisely because it will precipitate such behaviour - these film parents are conveniently clueless - and that just doesn't wash. Then there's the horrific cruelty of the Australian school kids and neighbours - again all of it so over the top as to beggar belief.

But the worst scene is after a particularly horrific home incident, the special needs brother Charlie (played by Luke Ford) supposedly apologises in sign language to his brother Thomas (played by Rhys Wakefield) - this just wouldn't happen. It is precisely because of Autism that Charlie would never make this cognitive leap - and in the real world - it's in this maddening knowledge - that lies so much hurt for siblings. Your brother doesn't progress - your sister doesn't get any better - and most people - including the authorities - couldn't give a toss. But this is a film - and after all that battering-ram stuff - the makers must offer you some hope...

Autism has been used in movies before - and to some good effect; "Mercury Rising" with Bruce Willis and most famously Dustin Hoffman as the Savant in "Rain Man". But these were simplistic versions of the condition without any of the really nasty self-injurious stuff and effect on the family. "The Black Balloon" seems to want to bludgeon you over the head with only the gross stuff- and then somehow arrive at a magical point of tolerance at the end. The real world, however, is slightly different.

It's not all grim of course - it isn't. There's a moment of extraordinary tenderness and one of the best 'growing up' sexy scenes I've ever seen. The gorgeous Gemma Ward plays Jackie (legs as long as the M1 motorway and a face the camera adores) who fancies the slightly odd she suspects brave Thomas (constantly defending his brother). Along with all the other swimmers, they are at a school safety exercise lesson lying down by the poolside; she leans over him in her dripping swimsuit to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as per her instructor. He has his eyes shut - supposedly drowned. She has to apply mouth-to-mouth - up and down - blowing in air. The way the sunlight catches her wet hair - the drops falling on him - the proximity of such loveliness - the lips that nearly touch, but can't because people are watching - it's beautifully done - really ace stuff...

Also on the up side is Luke Ford's performance as the Autistic Charlie - his mannerisms are very good and at times uncomfortably accurate - our boy displays some of the same. Erik Thompson and Toni Collette are gripping as the parents trying to cope and keep their family together.

I'm not adverse to a difficult watch worth the difficulty, but I found this movie strangely exploitive - and for all the wrong reasons. I'll admit that anything that hurts children - especially special needs children - makes me wince and rage - so perhaps my opinion of the movie simply can't be anything other than biased. My wife thought it was brilliant - finally exposing the pain and difficulty parents of special needs children have to go through. I on the other hand would smash Mel Gibson over the head with a mallet...

One review on the DVD box tells us the movie is "...life-affirming..." and "...a sheer delight..." Absolute balls.

Make up your own mind folks. As ever, "One man's Heaven is..."

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