Thomas Mollison (Rhys Wakefield) is a sensitive adolescent, constantly changing schools as his regular Army father Simon (Erik Thompson) moves from base to base. Making life especially difficult for the Mollisons is Thomas’ autistic brother, Charlie, brilliantly played by Luke Ford. Charlie is a handful at the best of times, demanding constant attention and unable to communicate except via grunting and rudimentary signing.
Toni Collette is great (yet again) as the dynamic mother, Maggie Mollison. She displays endless love and patience for Charlie, and an amazing amount of energy, despite being heavily pregnant with a third child. Maggie and Simon are philosophical as to their ‘burden’ – ‘your mother thinks we got Charlie because we’re strong enough to cope’ – however Thomas struggles to deal with the attention that Charlie demands and receives from all in the family.
I enjoyed the scenes of Thomas’ life at his new school – those tight Warrick Capper uniform shorts brought back some embarrassing memories as did the bathers that Thomas is loaned on his first day at the pool. Despite being significantly less cool than the other boys at his school, and having his credibility ruined by having a ‘spazzo’ for a brother, Thomas manages to woo the lovely Jackie Masters (Gemma Ward), who provides a nice counterpoint to the insensitive bullying of Thomas’ other classmates.
Director/writer Elissa Down draws on her own personal experiences (she has two autistic brothers), and manages to perfectly capture the humour, love, despair, and challenges of living with an autistic person. There were a couple of particularly powerful scenes – the aftermath of Charles being left on his own; and Thomas’ disastrous 16th birthday party, to name a few – and a few very funny scenes.
The Black Balloon scores 4 stars and some big thumbs up for all of the cast.