Produced for what was likely a day's Botox budget on Baz Luhrmann's Australia, this auspicious Oz import—the debut feature of director Elissa Down—comes on like a Rain Man for the High School Musical set, but quickly establishes itself as that rare "disease movie" in which the disorder in question is mined neither for mawkish sentimentality nor ersatz inspirationalism. Perhaps because Down herself grew up with two autistic siblings, she brings a decidedly piss-(and-shit)-and-vinegar approach to the story of shy Queensland teen Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), who has enough trouble fitting in at his new high school and returning the flirtation of his comely phys-ed classmate (stunning, saucer-eyed newcomer Gemma Ward) without the interference of his shortbus-riding autistic brother (Luke Ford, who acts the part with total conviction). Sweetie this isn't, but within its resolutely mainstream parameters, The Black Balloon courses with a firsthand feel for languorous Aussie summers, the shifting scales of love and hate in sibling relationships, and the earned wit that helps families cope with difficult situations. The time is the 1980s, and, as in the Australian new-wave films that proliferated during that period, one gets the sense of a cadre of bright, young filmmaking talents on the verge of breaking out.
Ward and Wakefield get close.
Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., April 3. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes.