Living in the shadow of an exceptional sibling is difficult. Whether that sibling is an exceptional athlete, student, musician or whether they are mentally or physically handicapped, much of the family time and attention is focused on them. This inordinate emphasis creates an injustice that can be stifling for the sibling who is trying to live their own life. This reality is artistically and emotionally presented in Elissa Down's award-winning Australian film "The Black Balloon."
Written in partnership with Jimmy Jack whose own life experience brings authentic emotion to the screen, Down's cinematic gift is obvious. With symbolic cues that provide movement to the transformation, we walk with Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield) through his sixteenth birthday as the younger sibling of his autistic brother Charlie (Luke Ford). It is a transformation from resentment to acceptance.
Thomas' mother Maggie (Toni Collette) believes that Charlie has been given to her because she is strong enough to care for him, while his father Simon (Erik Thomson) simply feels that you must take care of your own. The result of these beliefs creates a family that is chaotic emotionally and yet committed relationally. Into this mixture is about to be born another child as Maggie's pregnancy requires bed-rest and hospitalization leaving Thomas and his father to care for Charlie on their own.
To heighten the tension of the tale, Thomas and his family have only recently moved into a town beside the army base in which his father is stationed. Moving into a new high school with all the peer expectations and adolescent cruelty, Thomas is trying to find acceptance. This is far more difficult when your older brother is, as Thomas describes him, "a freak."
In the high school is a beautiful young teen who is an only child of a single father, having lost her mother when she was young. Longing for a family, Jackie Masters (Gemma Ward) finds Thomas' relationship with his brother both repulsive and attractive. This complexity is part of the genius of the film as the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of such a relationship and family are presented. Her inclusion in Thomas journey is part of the providential enlightenment he needs.
The deflated black balloon clustered with its bunch presents the ties of a family that cares for an exceptional child. Understanding this life is a gift "The Black Balloon" gives to all of us.
1. Living in the shadow of a sibling of special ability or special needs is difficult. Was this your experience as a child? If so, how did you handle it?
2. The strength that Thomas' mother exhibited, knowing that Charlie was going to be living with her for his entire life, was amazing. Where do you think she got that strength? Do you think you could live with this responsibility?
3. The use of visual symbols in this film reminds us of another film with masterful symbolic communication: KOYLA. Which symbols most spoke to you?