LAist Movie Review: The Black Balloon

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The Black Balloon. Photo courtesy Platform Media Group.

If there is ever a time to get people out of their house and into movie theaters, it is now. The weather is turning colder, Oscar season is fast approaching, and a large amount of turkey makes it hard to want to do anything besides sit in plush chairs with 40 oz. of liquid crack within easy reach. The problem, though, is that everyone knows this, from the big picture houses on down to the independent filmmakers trying to earn a living. And most people, like it or not, will go see the American film with star power and an 8-figure budget that gets wasted on sending plumes of smoke and fire into the air. It's a tough season for the independent outsiders. Just ask Ron Paul.

That doesn't mean that there aren't very worthy films out there that deserve the attention of the masses; there are. Hidden beneath the crusty upper layer of your Regal Cinemas and Arclights are the Landmark Theatres and arthouses sprinkled around this fair city that struggle to do the thankless work of bringing independent productions to our plates, even in this gorged-out holiday season. Starting December 5th, The Crest in Westwood will be doing just such a service when it begins a run of the new Australian film The Black Balloon.

This season, if you want to see a movie about teen romance and mentally challenged characters, go see Twilight. Or you can decide you want to see a good film, and check out The Black Balloon instead. In short, young Australian actor Rhys Wakefield plays Thomas Mollison, an almost-16-year-old army kid who has moved (yet again) to a new town. As if his social struggles for acceptance weren't enough, he also has an overbearing and oversized autistic older brother named Charlie. Usually, Charlie is kept in check by their mother, Maggie. But when she becomes bedridden with another child on the way, it is up to the boys and their father to keep things in order. Of course, they soon unravel as Charlie consistently thwarts every attempt Thomas makes for a normal life, including with his new boo, Jackie. Resentment builds as language barriers break down and frustrations pile up, leading to an ultimate confrontation that could change things forever.

With The Black Balloon, relative newcomer Elissa Down has established herself as a legitimate writer/director threat. There aren't too many visual tricks and very little gimmicky material to be had, but that shouldn't be a knock on an overall solid film. And the few truly memorable scenes - in particular, Thomas' repentant interaction with Jackie under the streetlights - stick themselves out quite nicely, and help to elevate the whole film to a line above simple descriptions such as 'well-made'. It's doubtful that The Black Balloon will become the cult hit of the year, since it doesn't stray too far from conventional cinematic elements, but that does not mean it should be overlooked. With solid performances from Wakefield, Gemma Ward as young girlfriend Jackie, and the ultra-believable Luke Ford as Charlie, The Black Balloon is definitely worth a trip outside the usual realm of seasonal filmmaking.

If there are any real knocks on the film, they stem from small gaps and absurdities in the writing. As an audience, we often wish to see Thomas do more for himself when being Charlie's brother leads to it's own sense of social ostracism. Other scenes seem a bit far-fetched as well, but are acted and shown with such clarity that it rarely matters. What is left is distilled into a complete and satisfying package with enough of a message (the selfish struggle of a young man dealing with his own life while needed by a mentally challenged older brother) to succeed. As a foreign film import, The Black Balloon proves that there truly is life outside the big cinema houses we've all come to know and love. This winter film season, it may do you well to discover that life, too.