Teenagers aren't typically known for their tact or sensitivity, so it's no surprise they quickly sic themselves on new kid Thomas (Wakefield), who arrives at a small army community in Queensland, Australia, with a number of petty targets already on his back, such as his inability to swim or bring the right trunks to swim class. But for Thomas, the regular anxieties and humiliations of adolescence are compounded by the volcanic stress of his home life, which is ruled entirely by the whims of Charlie (Ford), Thomas' big brother (and he is
big – scarily strong, too). Seventeen-year-old Charlie has severe autism and attention deficit disorder; he lost the ability of speech years before and now communicates with his family via sign language and other, less subtle cues, such as the smearing of his own feces on the shag carpet. Not the kind of scene you want to bring a girl home to … but then Jackie (Ward) isn't your run-of-the-mill Eighties prom queen. A classmate of Thomas' who quietly bullies her way into both boys' confidences, Jackie punctuates her thoughts with a wide-eyed "wowee" and has a good, sensible laugh when Charlie roots a tampon out of her bag and brandishes it in his teeth like a dog with a squeaky toy. (Ward, all spindly limbs and ovaled face, looks like she sprang full-grown from the imagination of Henry Selick and should seriously consider quitting her day job as a Vogue
cover girl; she's fantastic.) The field is glutted with coming-of-age stories about oversavvy, oversexed teenagers, but Down and co-writer Jimmy Jack smartly put their sweet, overburdened characters at a gentler age – 14 or so – and era – the Eighties, pre-pop-culture OD, back when kids swapped cassette mixes like mash notes. There's nothing gentle about the tug of war between brothers, however. Thomas realistically careens from affection and protectiveness to mortification and rage, and when he delivers a beat-down to his brother, it's a staggeringly layered moment, drawing on every angle of the family dynamic so subtly constructed in the film's first two-thirds. Speaking of said family, Collette (United States of Tara
) plays the boy's mother, and she's funny and fierce and deeply moving, much like the picture on a whole. There are a few minor missteps in The Black Balloon
(which has won just about every award under the sun in its native Australia, in addition to the Crystal Bear for youth-oriented films at the Berlin International Film Festival): the occasional off-putting quirk, a song-and-dance bit. They mark small contrivances in a film that mostly skirts artifice and sentimentality for a truer portrait of a family battered and bruised but nowhere near broken.