The Aussie charmer “The Black Balloon” traffics in one of film’s most dangerous terrains – the mentally challenged protagonist.
Handle with care and you get “Rain Man.” Stumble and you’re left with “The Other Sister.”
Yet “Balloon” charts its own naturalistic course, relying less on easy sight gags and more on the complications that come from having a mentally challenged sibling.
“Balloon” stars Rhys Wakefield as Thomas, a nearly 16-year-old teen trying to juggle adolescence while coping with an older, autistic brother named Charlie (Luke Ford).
Charlie’s needs consumer Thomas’ family, from his very pregnant mom, Maggie (Toni Collette) to his father, Simon (Erik Thomson).
They never know when Charlie will burst out of the house wearing only his underwear or use his own excrement for an impromptu art project.
Thomas knows how to cope with Charlie, but he’s less secure in juggling both his brother and the affections of a beautiful school mate (Gemma Ward).
Writer/director Elissa Down grew up with two autistic brothers, and there’s rarely a moment in “The Black Balloon” which feels forced or inauthentic. She draws compelling performances from all the key players, including an utterly convincing Ford playing a man locked in his own childish world.
The story doesn’t move in ways one might expect – or dread. Thomas’ budding romance is heartfelt, not pre-programmed. Maggie’s maternal instincts seem highly attuned, yet she doesn’t give Thomas the attention he deserves.
Thomson’s character is the sleeper in the bunch, a military man who has trouble commanding his sick wife to stay in bed. But he’s neither a boob nor someone to be pitied. It’s a measure of the film’s depth that a supporting character is given so many realistic shades.
The second to last scene in the film does ring hollow, a callow retread of “Little Miss Sunshine’s” manufactured finale. It’s the one moment in which the movie falls for the easy emotional moment.
In every other way “The Black Balloon” represents Down’s fresh vision of a mostly unconventional family unit.
(Photo: Luke Ford and Rhys Wakefield play brothers in the new Australian drama “The Black Balloon.”)