Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Elissa Down (director and writer),  The Black Balloon (2008)

Written and directed by Elissa Down, who grew up with two autistic brothers, The Black Balloon (2008) is a film that presents a sympathetic exploration of what it is like to grow up with an autistic family member.  Based largely on the writer-director’s teenage experiences, the film focuses on the travails of Thomas who had to deal with the perpetual frustration, extreme embarrassment, and parental neglect resulting from the almost incessant needs of his autistic and ADD-afflicted brother, Charlie.  The film also celebrates the stoic endurance of the parents of an autistic child and how they have come to cope with such a challenge.  The family is far from perfect, and mistakes are made, but they manage, and they stay together and stay loving. The film promotes an appreciation of the needs of the mentally disabled while drawing attention to the sacrifices of the families who care for them. 

In this context, the film preaches toleration, patience, acceptance, and the need to dispense with unrealistic hopes or expectations of improvement in the afflicted family member’s condition as that will only produce frustration, disappointment and resentment.  The parents learnt this long ago and the film tells the story of how Thomas also comes to accept this and consequently find an equilibrium that makes his life easier.  His first girlfriend Jackie is a role model in guiding Thomas to accept his brother for who he is.  She also shows the cinema audience how to appropriately treat the mentally disabled and their families.

The film has much to say about the intolerance and prejudice exhibited by many people towards the mentally disabled and those who care for them, highlighting the injustice of this.  Their prejudice only adds to the travails of the family of the afflicted.  Teasing school children are shown to be the worst offenders, followed by nosy neighbours who do not understand that a family home with an autistic child will produce some unusual sights and sounds.  Other people are shown to just stand there during a public meltdown by an autistic child, not knowing how to react or behave.  All of this adds to the family’s difficulties. 

The film seeks to educate the public about autistic children and the burdens placed on the family of the autistic child.  The film went to great care to accurately depict the strange behaviours of an autistic teenager.  The autistic child shows a severely impaired capacity to relate to others or appreciate complex feelings.  They frequently make odd noises, like moans and mumbles, and exhibit odd repetitive behaviours.  An autistic child may chose not to speak, so sign language must be used to communicate.  Autistic children need linguistic clarity, routine, and rewards for merit.  The family of the afflicted also need to lock all cupboards to deter exploring hands, and keep the front door locked to avoid sudden escapes.  The afflicted also show a lack of propriety or privacy regarding excretal bodily functions and masturbation.  The autistic child feels emotions like happiness or anger, even lust, but he has no sense of how acting out on his feelings can impact on others.  When surprised or disapointed or shouted at, he can retaliate with frenzied shouting, violence, biting, spitting, self-harm, or falling on the ground in a tantrum and refusing to cooperate or acknowledge the distress he causes to his family members by doing this.  The autistic child’s behaviour is unpredictable and small incidents can escalate into bizarre, embarrassing major public catastrophes.  However, there are moments when caring for an autistic child can be heart-warming or hilarious. The autistic child can also be sweet and amusing, and generate strong feelings of love from his family.

The film also celebrates an Australian family that has a sufficient sense of duty and sacrifice to protect its most vulnerable family member.  The family in the film experiences enormous stresses and strains that many other families could not endure but this is a family that stayed together and stayed loving. The film is a tribute to the writer-director’s family and to all similar families that have sacrificed so much to do the right thing for the mentally disabled. 

The film also explores young love in the romance between the teenagers Thomas and Jackie.  Their experience is tender and meaningful.  It is meant to contrast with cinematic depictions in other films of drunken teenage parties and promiscuous sex. These mutually attracted teenagers are initially awkward when meeting and establishing a connection, but this soon blossoms into a relationship that is sincere and loving.  It is also enriching, especially for Thomas who finds in Jackie a wisdom that guides him find a way to accept his autistic brother for who he is.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Black Balloon meaning, Black Balloon themes, Black Balloon analysis, Black Balloon notes