Director Elissa Down's coming-of-age story, The Black Balloon, kicks off Aussie film festival
February 13, 2009
Australian writer-director Elissa Down stayed close to home for her first full-length feature, The Black Balloon.
Shot in southwestern Sydney, in the same neighbourhood where Down spent part of her adolescence, the movie is a stylized version of her own coming-of-age memories. Her father was a soldier, and she grew up with her parents and three brothers, two of them autistic, in army camp "suburbs."
Starring Toni Collette, Erik Thomson, newcomers Rhys Wakefield and Luke Ford, and Australian supermodel Gemma Ward, The Black Balloon was the first Australian cinema success story of 2008, winning the Crystal Bear prize for Best Feature Film for the teen market at the Berlin Film Festival, and securing a wide release in Down's native country.
The movie opens the fourth annual OzFlix Australian Film Weekend tonight at the Royal Cinema (608 College St.). The festival runs through Monday, with the remainder of the films screening at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Balloon is about a teenager (Wakefield) conflicted by his devotion to his demanding autistic brother (Ford) and his affection for a young woman (Ward) amid an often seriously dysfunctional home life, barely held together by his preoccupied father (Thomson) and free-spirited, pregnant mother (Collette). For Down, there was no comfort in sticking close to the story's origins, she said by phone from her new home in Los Angeles.
"Autism and coming-of-age aren't high-demand movie material. It was a hard sell. But this is a story I know ... it's very close to my heart. It's about frustration, embarrassment, joy, fun, love, sex and strong family ties. It's loaded with emotions you can't even describe.
"The challenge was ... to avoid shying away from what might be uncomfortable to watch. It wouldn't have worked otherwise."
The characters are autobiographical. "Luke (Ford) was the second guy to audition for the part of the autistic brother," Down said. "He nailed it immediately ... I thought I was looking at one of my own brothers.
"And the mother ... well, that's my mother. Toni comes from a working-class background and she identified with the part immediately. Without my prompting, she even learned sign language – the way she communicates with her autistic son – to make her role more credible."
The Black Balloon is no Rain Man. It's a small movie about intimacy and compassion. No disaster threatens this loving, awkward family as they go about the ordinary efforts of living with extraordinary challenges. But it does place unusual demands on the audience.
"It was interesting to watch people's reactions in certain scenes: some saw the humour in them; some were obviously offended," Down said.
For instance, a scene where the father loses his temper in a supermarket after Wakefield's character throws a tantrum raises the question: "What would we do if we witnessed that or had to cope with it? ... Would we feel shame, anger, embarrassment? Would we call Child Services and complain, as neighbours do in the film, and as they did when I was growing up?
" These people aren't saints or suicidal. They get on with it. The love that binds them is never questioned. It's why my parents are still together."
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