The Black Balloon is an award-winning Australian movie that is, on the surface, one portrayal of autism through a non-autistic brother’s point of view.
When taking The Black Balloon with that premise in mind, it’s a movie I found to be both honest and challenging. The movie takes risks, which I like from an artistic standpoint. It has a solid, not-too-subtle message of acceptance at its core, which I like from an advocacy standpoint.
If taken outside that premise the movie can be problematic. This movie is biased. Charlie, the brother with autism, is not the viewpoint character. Nor is he the main character. While he is not dehumanized, The Black Balloon does not tell Charlie’s story. For some viewers that’s going to be frustrating.
At face value, Charlie seems to be “the problem” that the plot intends to solve. Thomas, the non-autistic brother (also the viewpoint character and the main character), starts off the story seeing Charlie as the problem that needs to be solved. This can be hard to watch. There is violence between these brothers, which can be hard to watch. There is violence between the parents and the children, which can be hard to watch. Charlie’s autistic traits are emphasized to the point of stereotyping, which can be hard to watch.
But—and this is a very important but—that bias is not the movie-maker’s bias; it’s Thomas’ bias. This movie is about transforming Thomas’ perceptions of his brother. It’s about Thomas’ journey as he grows towards acceptance, reaches for understanding, and builds an appreciation for the person Charlie is.
If I had to classify The Black Balloon, I would not call it an “autism movie” or an “advocacy movie” or even a “prejudice movie,” though there are elements of all of that within this movie. The Black Balloon is a coming-of-age movie, in which Thomas must come to terms with his brother as he is as part of growing up. So, while there is stereotyping in the movie, it is because for most of the movie the viewpoint character sees his brother as his autism, not because that is how the movie-maker’s envisioned Charlie.
Another thing that makes this movie problematic is my concern that viewers who have no direct experience with autism might mistake this portrayal of one autistic character as a portrayal of autism as a whole. Obviously no movie can do that, but that doesn’t stop people from internalizing a movie and using that movie as their basis for understanding.
Yet, despite the hard-to-watch parts and the risks of further stereotyping, the movie resonates with me. I have a great appreciation for the parents’ struggle to provide opportunities for both their children. I have a great appreciation for the mistakes the parents make. I have an appreciation for Thomas’ struggle to come to terms with his own life and all the people within it. And I have a great appreciation for the subtle way the movie-makers showed Charlie as an outsider looking in, even within his own family. I liked how they showed that there was a person behind the stereotype—a person who wanted very much to be included in his brother’s life and for his brother to take part in his life.
Overall, I would consider the movie to be very well-done. It’s a story with a point, but the focus was on telling the story, not on telling the point—which is very much appropriate.