The Black Balloon Review
Fifteen-year-old Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) has just moved to a new house with his parents. His mother Maggie (Toni Collette) is heavily pregnant and confined to bed on doctor's orders. His army father Simon (Erik Thomson) struggles to cope in her absence. And then there's Thomas's older brother Charlie (Luke Ford), who is severely autistic with ADD and cannot speak. It's a lot for Thomas to cope with, not least when he meets Jackie (Gemma Ward)...
Elissa Down's debut feature, cowritten with co-producer Jimmy Jack (credited as Jimmy the Exploder, obviously a White Stripes fan), like many first films draws heavily on autobiography. She came from an army family much like this one, having to move house at regular intervals. Also, many of the scenes involving Charlie are based on real incidents involving her two autistic brothers. One of the remarkable things about this film is that Charlie is treated without any sentimentality whatsoever, nor is he played for somewhat uneasy comic relief, something that other films (recent example: Clubland) haven't always avoided. You can sense all the embarrassment, the uneasy worry as to what gross or even dangerous thing he is going to do next, all embodied in a fully-grown male body. And yet you see the love, a challenge for any parent, particularly in scenes between Toni Collette and Luke Ford. Both give remarkable performances, virtually disappearing into their roles – Luke Ford is thoroughly convincing in what must have been a difficult role to pull off. Yet you can sense the frustration and resentment as well, which comes to a head at Thomas's birthday party late on in the film. Rhys Wakefield has a hard task in conveying all this and still maintaining the viewer's sympathy, and Gemma Ward (better known as a model) finds some nuances in a potentially bland girlfriend part.
Elissa Down makes confident use of the Scope format, which despite its width adds to the sense of claustrophobia. Denson Baker's camerawork and Nicholas McCallum's production design are first-rate, conveying the period setting (1991, as specified by Down in her commentary) without being too insistent about it.
The performances are excellent: Collette and Ford won AFI awards, Wakefield and Thomson were nominated, with only Gemma Ward going unrewarded. There are some flaws – Simon's talking to and taking advice from a teddy bear called Rex come over as a rather contrived eccentricity – but overall it's the emotional authenticity which makes this film the success it is.
The Black Balloon was the big winner at the 2008 AFI awards: as well as the two acting wins, it took home Best Film and Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing. At the time of writing it looks like it will get a DVD release but will bypass British cinemas (apart from most likely the Barbican's annual Australian film festival). Well, that's better than nothing, considering that certain past AFI Best Film winners (such as last year's) have had no UK release at all.
The Black Balloon is released by Icon on a disc encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Given that this is a brand new film, an excellent transfer is what you should expect and that's what you get. It's sharp, colourful (shooting the film in Sydney in summer really pays off) and blacks are solid and artefacts non-existent.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, with a 2.0 version available. There's quite a bit of ambient sound in this mix, and sequences where the surrounds open up, such as the thunderstorm fifty minutes in. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are available in white.
Elissa Down gives a good commentary, packing a lot into her allotted hour and a half. She's clearly enthusiastic about her film, as well she should be, and she fills in details that aren't always clear from the film itself.
The interviews on this disc follow the usual EPK method of having the title appear in text format on screen before video footage of the person answering it. The people replying to some fairly standard questions are Elissa Down, producer Tristram Miall, Toni Collette, Rhys Wakefield, Gemma Ward, Luke Ford and Erik Thomson.
The final extra is a self-navigating stills gallery, backed by Michael Yezerski's music score.
9 out of 10
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