Think of autism on the screen and inevitably the figure of Dustin Hoffman's Raymond from Rain Man shambles into view, frustrating those around him with his inability to communicate yet astonishing them, too, with his gift for plucking arcane statistics out of the air. Emotionally handicapped he may be but intellectually, he's a magician.
There's a certain romance in the idea, especially when Tom Cruise, cast as Raymond's conman brother, takes him to Las Vegas, where Raymond's talent for figures starts winning them a fortune.
But Rain Man came out of Hollywood and The Black Balloon was made right here in Sydney. From that fact alone, you may have guessed that it gives a much earthier view of the autistic. Charlie Mollison (Luke Ford) has no gifts as an idiot savant. Instead of startling his family with the things he knows, he chooses not to talk and his autism is complicated by ADHD. But he has a great lust for life - as his 16-year-old brother, Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), knows only too well. Charlie's exuberance is the cross that Thomas has to bear. Strangers do not understand when he spends hours amusing himself by banging a pot with a wooden spoon or when he turns on a tantrum in a supermarket. And the Mollisons meet lots of strangers. They're an army family and every time that Thomas's father, Simon (Erik Thomson), is given a new posting, Thomas has to adjust to another set of schoolmates and Charlie and his problems have to be explained all over again.
Writer-director Elissa Down makes extraordinarily light work of this. The script is drawn from her own experiences growing up with two autistic brothers, one of whom suffered ADHD in common with Charlie. And every scene is enriched by the perspective gained when total recall is amplified by a reflectiveness grown out of time and distance. The film is a tender portrait of love under pressure. It's also illuminated by the kind of helpless laughter that can save the day when things are at their most desperate.
To prepare her production designer, Nick McCallum, for what he was getting into, Down took him to her parents' house which, she says, he pretty well reproduced on set. The Mollisons are moving in when we first meet them and they quickly set about arranging their individual collections of clutter to achieve a state of cheerful disarray. It all rings true except for the teddy bear cherished by Simon, an otherwise well-adjusted adult who adores his family and believes that a man's humanity depends on his willingness to look after his own. His wife, Maggie (Toni Collette), doesn't need a guiding principle. Her love for Charlie is unconditional. Collette gives us a big-hearted, easygoing woman who finds joy in managing her son in all his moods and if the neighbours can't handle that, it's too bad. Charlie is her vocation - which can be tough on Thomas, who has to chase him when he runs off down the street, wearing nothing but his underpants and his much loved hat with the mouse ears.