The Black Balloon

Drama or reality?

Relationships as portrayed in The Black Balloon

Character relationships are essential to coming of age films like The Black Balloon, and the presence of a central character with a disability adds drama and tension to the relationships portrayed in the film. Charlie's disabilities deeply affect the relationship between Thomas and Maggie, but is the relationship between Thomas and Maggie a reality for people with an autistic sibling?

Thomas at the start of the film is a fifteen year old who has a few months left to his sixteenth birthday. His mother Maggie sees it as perfectly reasonable for a fifteen year old to mind and help clean a sibling who has just smeared their faeces into carpet. Most people would be horrified by this and see the expectation as unreasonable, Maggie however reacts to this as another parent would react to an older sibling failing in their responsibility to their younger sibling. Thomas is at least a year younger than Charlie and the expectations Maggie places on him are weighty and beyond that of others in his age group.

Thomas believes he has no responsibility to Charlie, contrary to Maggie’s claim that Charlie is the whole family’s responsibility. Thomas tries to distance himself from Charlie fearing the social isolation Charlie faces to spread and encompass, should his peers discover their relationship. This desire isolates him from his family who unlike Thomas, view Charlie as a gift.

The only explanation Thomas is given to justify Charlie being treated differently, comes from a distraught and heavily pregnant Maggie: “Your brother, will never be able to do the things you can Thomas”. It is known that stress and negatives emotions result when a child does not understand their siblings need to be treated differently, Thomas through the course of the film comes to accept and understand his brother’s needs.

Maggie loves all three of her children equally, but taking care of Charlie leaves her little time to spend with them, especially Thomas who is the only one capable of looking after himself. Though she places great responsibility on Thomas, Maggie understands the difficulties he faces. This can be seen when she soothes a sobbing Thomas on the night of his birthday, following a violent altercation between Thomas and Charlie, chanting "My poor baby".

Thomas is not given time where he can be with his parents and discuss matters that are important to him, and is often left out due to Charlie being the focus of Simon and Maggie's attention. Autism support groups advice that the siblings are given time when they can discuss their problems with their parents, personal space, and honest explanations on why their sibling needs special care and attention. Thomas is only given an emotional explanation as to why Charlie needs special care, and though he has a room to himself, he is not given time to discuss issues with his parents, and feels disconnected from them.

The director of The Black Balloon, Elissa Down, grew up with two autistic brothers in 1990’s Australia, describes the film as based on the difficulties she faced.

The following links are to comments made on an article on the effects autism can have on siblings, by people who grew up in the 90’s with autistic siblings and comments which I found to be relevant to the reality of growing up with an autistic sibling and the responsibilities that it entails:

The effects of autism on siblings and guidelines for parents: