During my 13-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul the other day, I had ample opportunity to watch several movies. The airline had over twenty recent movie releases available. Not great movies. Just movies. Some of the classics included The Echelon Conspiracy, The International, and Good. I hadn't heard of any of them, but The International seemed familiar. All three helped kill a combined five hours of flight time. But when I broke down and watched 17 Again, starring Matthew Perry and Zac Efron, I knew I'd just given up. It was a cry for help.
Actually, I wasn't just giving up. I was avoiding something: A special movie called The Black Balloon.
The Black Balloon is an Australian movie whose cast includes Toni Collette. Collette is known for her work in many movies including The Sixth Sense, Little Miss Sunshine and the funniest chick movie I've ever seen, Muriel's Wedding. She is also one of the movie's executive producers.
The movie's brief description was enough reason for me to want to avoid it (from Wikipedia):
When Thomas and his family move to a new home and he has to start at a new school, all he wants is to fit in. When his pregnant mother has to take it easy, he is put in charge of his (severely) autistic older brother Charlie . Thomas with the help of his new girlfriend Jackie faces his biggest challenge yet. Charlie’s unusual antics take Thomas on an emotional journey that cause his pent-up frustrations about his brother to pour out.
To be blunt, when I'm on a 13-hour flight I really want a break from autism. To research Kicking and Screaming, I read plenty of wonderful stories about autism and while I learned a lot from all of them, they were rough emotional journeys. However, if I was going to stoop low enough to watch a movie starring Zac Efron (without being badgered by the kids to do so), I figured I should probably give Black Balloon a spin. As I expected, it was a very rough emotional journey.
I simultaneously liked and hated this movie. It was the first time that I'd experienced simultaneous conflicting emotions like that since reading John Elder Robison's Look Me in the Eye (where I laughed and cried at many scenes). There's something about autism that can combine humor and sorrow at the same time. Sometimes you really have to laugh at some of the most awful things. In that vein, Black Balloon has some very funny moments.
I liked and hated that it presented autism is all it's brutality. While I don't have direct experience with severe autism, I've read or heard firsthand stories similar to many of the scenes portrayed in the movie. I've also experienced most of the events firsthand but at a much lower magnitude (eg. the difference between severe and high functioning autism). This was very uncomfortable.
I liked and hated that it demonstrated the physicality of autism. We're a society that's become unaccustomed to parents being physical with their children for many good reasons. With autism, even high functioning autism, PDD-NOS or Asperger's Syndrome, being physical can be a requirement to restrain or even calm the child when he or she is having an outburst. The movie painfully demonstrates other's discomfort with the physicality. In the movie, Charlie is a big powerful teenager and he presents a physical challenge for his family as they try to manage his outbursts. Robbie is a small seven-year old and he often presents a physical challenge to us as we try to manage his outbursts. This is not a small concern for when Robbie gets bigger.
I liked and hated that it demonstrated the human capacity for some people to act like despicable f**king a**holes: rotten kids (especially teenagers); ignorant and vindictive neighbors; and judging, yet useless onlookers. I often wonder, "If I wasn't experiencing this, would I be one of them? Was I ever?"
I liked (but did not hate) that it was a realistic portrayal of autism. There were no happy miracles or major breakthroughs. I assume this is because it was made in Australia and not Hollywood. I don't think Hollywood has the discipline to make a film like this. They couldn't resist making the movie about the character of the most famous actor (Toni Collette) or having it focus on some sweeping unrealistic (or rare) turn of events. (As a tangent, the first movie where this aspect of Hollywood struck me was when I saw the Canadian film, Waking Walter: The Walter Gretzky Story. I thought, "there is no way that Hollywood could make a film about the Gretzky family and have the discipline to allow Wayne to be a bit character - far behind his father, mother, sister and his father's physical therapist." But I digress.)
I loved that the story was not about the autistic child or the parents. It was about the sibling, Thomas. I'm not shy about my belief that that I think the real people who get the shaft in the special needs world are the siblings. It's very hard on the children with the condition and it's very hard on the parents. But for siblings, it's a whole 'nother ballgame. The movie's portrayal of Thomas does justice to the fact of just how unfair a situation like this can be for a sibling. I liked that the movie allowed him to express real, yet very uncomfortable emotions. He's angry. He's embarrassed. He's crushed. He's humiliated.
I liked that it was Thomas's - and only Thomas's character to any real degree - that arced greatly in the movie (for you screenwriter wannabe's, I'm answering Richard Krevolin's question number 5 from How to Adapt Anything to a Screenplay - How do the characters change throughout the movie?). The story is basically Thomas's journey from anger to acceptance, even loving, with the help of his girlfriend, Jackie. She's the catalyst for his transformation. She's that very unique person who doesn't apparently have a tie to the special needs world but "gets it".
As a side note, if you want to read a great (yet challenging) book about siblings, I recommend Being the Other One: Growing Up with a Brother or Sister with Special Needs by Kate Strohm - also an Australian (what is it about the Aussies? They seem to really get this).
I can't recommend that everyone run to Blockbuster or Amazon or Netflix and rent/buy The Black Balloon. I found it hard to watch. In fact if it came on television and Joy was in the room, I'd change the channel. I think it would be far too difficult for her to watch.
But it's accurate. The movie's writer/director, Elissa Down, grew up with two autistic brothers and Charlie is based on one of them. Down "gets it", especially from the sibling perspective. If you want to watch a movie that paints a realistic portrait and finds a silver lining amidst all that can be ugly about autism, The Black Balloon does the trick. Here's the trailer: