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Originally published April 2, 2009 at 3:19 PM | Page modified April 2, 2009 at 3:22 PM

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Movie review

In "The Black Balloon," a mother's love binds family with autistic son

"The Black Balloon" is a charming and challenging portrait of tumultuous suburban life in Australia for a family with a profoundly autistic son. Toni Collette shines as a mother whose love breaches all turmoil, no matter how tragic or trifling.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"The Black Balloon," with Rhys Wakefield, Gemma Ward, Luke Ford, Toni Collette, Erik Thomson. Directed by Elissa Down, from a screenplay by Down and Jimmy Jack. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, a scene of violence and brief strong language. Harvard Exit.

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What's eating Thomas Mollison? The answer is his brother, Charlie, a profoundly autistic young man who makes life for 15-year-old Thomas and his parents a harrowing roller coaster of unpredictability. Will Charlie be adorable and compliant? Will he be grumpy and obstreperous?

Or will he fly into a feral rage of spitting and biting and flailing blows that no domestic understanding can temper?

"The Black Balloon" is a charming and frequently challenging portrait of tumultuous family life in a middle-class suburb of Sydney, Australia. There are wrenching scenes that are brutally stark, yet there remains a steady sense of calm that is touching and sensitive without ever turning sentimental.

Charlie is the movie's commanding center, and Luke Ford (who appeared in last summer's "Mummy" sequel) gives him extraordinary depth and range with his own language of giggles, gurgles and guttural growls. But it is Toni Collette as the mom who bonds her family together and anchors the movie's tough emotional core. Maggie is a wise, selfless mother with a vastness of love that breaches all turmoil, no matter how tragic or trifling.

Next to Charlie, Thomas' adolescent tumult may seem petty, but his struggle to cope with life at a new school and a budding crush is a mighty burden, especially as he grapples with the constant intrusion of his brother's overwhelming need.

Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) is an army brat whose presence among a group of unfamiliar kids is awkward at best. When a leggy, blond knockout at school takes sympathetic interest in him, he's simultaneously thrilled by the mutual spark and terrified of revealing his real world. But Jackie (Gemma Ward) turns out to be more than just considerate; her own situation awakens honest compassion that also leads to greater insight for Thomas.

This teen romance never feels phony or forced. The tentative dance that Thomas and Gemma begin is sweet and sexy as it springs organically from the context of everything else that's going on. Though it remains entirely innocent, it's clear that their connection is a big deal and key to the evolving emotional sophistication both of them seek.

Rounding out the ensemble is Erik Thomson as Simon, a brusque yet cuddly military-career dad who has a lot in common with the ragged teddy bear he relies on for counsel and advice. He's heart-

broken by the burden of his son's disability, but his wife's devotion has convinced him that their family strength is responsible for the blessing of Charlie.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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