The Black Balloon occasionally sidles right up to the edge of heartwarming schmaltziness, but writer-director Elissa Down’s semi-autobiographical film always manages to counter its indie clichés with a sober sense of the volatility that comes from living with an autistic individual. In suburban Northern Australia, army brat Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) struggles to cope with his autistic teenage brother Charlie (Luke Ford), who can’t speak beyond simple noises, habitually wears a hat with monkey ears, and has the temperament of an unpredictable toddler, which in turn creates a home environment of constant borderline chaos. Thomas is wracked with embarrassment and shame when in public with Charlie—where classmates, neighbors and others shower him with looks of revulsion—as well as filled with anger over the fact that Charlie receives the lion’s share of attention from Dad (Erik Thomson) and pregnant Mom (Toni Collette). Down’s representation of Thomas’s inner turmoil, in which love for Charlie is inextricably tied up with resentment and frustration, is crafted with a fittingly hard edge, as Charlie’s frequent, aggressive outbursts provide harsh context for Thomas’s attempts to both fit in at school and feel comfortable in his skin.
Whereas Black Balloon intently balances humor and violence in its depiction of the family’s home life, it stumbles a bit in dramatizing Thomas’s budding relationship with swim class beauty Jackie (Gemma Ward), less because their conversational rapport seems inauthentic than because Jackie, as the pretty girl who immediately embraces new-kid Thomas and his uniquely difficult brother and situation, seems a tad too good to be true. An impromptu musical routine by Thomas and Charlie during the latter’s school play, which features choreography that’s too neat and emotions that are too rah-rah rousing, also carries with it a whiff of contrived mawkishness. Yet again and again, Down tightens the reins whenever necessary, keeping her portrait of autism, as well as of Thomas’s efforts to deal with his brother, rooted in the uncompromising reality that survival sometimes means not changing the world but simply accepting it as is.