Paranoid Park

Starring Rhys Wakefield, Toni Collette, Erik Thomson and Luke Ford. Directed by Elissa Down
Running Time: 97 mins
Rated: Rated M. (moderate theme, moderate coarse language)

Thomas (Wakefield) is nearly 16. His dad is in the army and the family is moved again to a new house and school. His older brother Charlie (Ford) announces their arrival to the neighbours by banging a wooden spoon and wailing on the front lawn. Charlie doesn't speak. He's autistic and has ADD. He is sometimes unmanageable, and his behaviour can be anti-social. Thomas resents his brother but wishes he didn't.

The Mollisons might be an army family; but they do not live a regimented life. It is far from a regular household. Thomas's cricket-obsessed father, Simon (Thompson), talks to his teddy. Simon and Maggie (Collette) are openly affectionate, and Maggie is heavily pregnant with "a little surprise'.

One morning, the semi-naked Charlie escapes the house and leads Thomas on a chase across the neighbourhood. Charlie bursts into a stranger's house to use the toilet; and Thomas finds himself face to face with Jackie Masters, a new classmate. The trouble is she is in the shower.

Maggie has complications with her pregnancy and becomes bedridden. Thomas and Simon between them take on Charlie's daily routine; and Thomas experiences the very demanding aspects of coping with his brother: the toilet troubles, shopping centre tantrums, and the ridiculing that comes from riding in the Special School bus.

Thomas's birthday dinner turns into a nightmare. Pent-up frustrations about his brother pour out that are both confronting and ultimately heart-warming.

The Black Balloon was accepted into competition at this year's Berlin Film Festival. A low budget production, it does not spare the viewer from imagining how any of us would cope with having a son on the cusp of manhood, who is autistic and has ADD.

In a truly remarkable performance, Luke Ford's Charlie is both lovable and demanding, but the stress he places upon the family is almost intolerable to watch. The sobering thought is to consider how many families live this all-too rarely seen life every day.

This film is all about the extent of sacrificial love, what parents will do for their children, and how far a brother will go to carry his sibling. In doing so, be warned that director Elissa Down does not spare us much of the extremely challenging situations and issues this family have to face. It is, by turns, complicated, tender, violent and chaotic.

One of the major themes running throughout this film concerns Thomas' swimming lessons at school. Apart from the all-too obvious appeal this is making to young men and women who want to see impossibly beautiful kids their age parading around in their swimming gear, Thomas has to learn to sink or swim.

It is a metaphor for his life at home as well. With the obligatory subplot of Thomas' coming of age love story, he finds that taking the plunge initiates him into a new life that gives him the strength to carry many burdens, including his brother.

The Black Balloon is a modest Australian drama that admirably achieves everything it sets out to do, affectionately lifting the lid on some significant suffering in the suburbs. It is raw in parts, but so is this slice of life, but this story ends up being about amazing grace. It deserves to do well.

Icon Films Out March 6

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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