Eschewing feel-good bromides in favor of messy authenticity, "The Black Balloon" is a tough-minded coming-of-age drama. At the center of the Australian independent film is 15-year-old Thomas, who as the son of a career army man is adjusting to yet another new school. He's also taking tentative steps toward first love. But overshadowing the usual teen conflicts and thrills are the constant pressures of being younger brother to Charlie, who's severely autistic and suffers from ADD.
Filmmaker Elissa Down has drawn terrifically natural performances from her cast, which includes Toni Collette as the boys' relentlessly cheery and sensible mother. She's about to have her third child, which may or may not be the last thing she needs when her eldest is essentially an oversized, unruly toddler. Communicating in grunts and basic sign language, Charlie (Luke Ford) requires that every cabinet in the house be locked and is given to violent tantrums in the supermarket. He also inspires the meddling of a nasty neighbor, much to the no-nonsense disgust of Dad (Erik Thomson).
The presence of a "talking" teddy bear suggests the hours this family has clocked in with therapists. But Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), navigating the predictable cruelty of other kids and the less easily categorized discomforts of home, still wishes for Charlie's impossible recovery -- and resents his neediness. Beneath preternaturally sunny suburban skies, turmoil lurks, exploding in shocking physical altercations. Helping Thomas come to terms with the reality he'd rather escape is lovely classmate Jackie. Gemma Ward transcends the perfect-blond aspect of the role, creating a girl of intelligence and compassion.
The film doesn't avoid sentimentality, notably in an unnecessary putting-on-a-show sequence at Charlie's school, which dulls the impact of the powerful scenes preceding it. But for the most part, this unblinking family drama packs a visceral punch. Thomas' journey toward acceptance is blessedly free of noble lessons and filled with real people.
-- Sheri Linden
"The Black Balloon." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, a scene of violence and brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At the Crest, 1262 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 474-7866; Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818; Regency Theatre Rancho Niguel 8, 25471 Rancho Niguel Road, Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-0446; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.
Nothing to add but wallowing
Writer-director Damian Harris (son of Richard, brother of Jared and director of "The Rachel Papers") struggled for almost 20 years to bring "Gardens of the Night" to the screen. A painstakingly researched account of child abduction and exploitation and the hardscrabble life of teenagers on the streets, the film exudes an anguished sincerity.
Harris has put together a genuinely oddball cast -- John Malkovich, Peta Wilson, Jeremy Sisto, Harold Perrineau and Michelle Rodriguez all pop up, some for basically one line -- but the film's emotional core comes from actresses Ryan Simpkins as a young abductee and Gillian Jacobs (also seen recently as a kindly stripper in "Choke") as the teenage version of the same character.
The film makes no real insights into the psychology of those who perpetrate these crimes, while also offering too little about those upon whom the crimes are committed, never reaching the empathetic heights of Gregg Araki's masterful "Mysterious Skin." For too long, "Gardens" feels like some sort of child predator instructional film, as presented by celebrity pitchman Tom Arnold.
Do these heartbreaking stories exist in the real world? Yes, yes, they do. Does dramatizing these stories with nothing to add except a certain cruel wallowing in the existence of unspeakable human depravity serve any real purpose? No, no, it does not.
-- Mark Olsen
"Gardens of the Night." MPAA Rating: R for disturbing content involving sexual exploitation of a child, language, sexual content and some drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-5100.
A young talent finding his way
"A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy" opens with a shot of a woman in the throes of personal ecstasy, the camera revolving around her like a spinning record while a luscious retro typeface splays the title across the screen.
What follows is something like the free-spirited change-ups of a vintage-vinyl-45 dance party, as the film plays out in a series of witty, sharply drawn scenes that focus on the immediate before, after and just a bit of the during of in flagrante delicto with no through-line to connect them.