The film The Black Balloon, directed by Elissa Down, realised in 2008, demonstrates the idea of how society today looks down upon people who suffer from autism spectrum disorder.
This film is about a family known as the Mollison’s, who have just moved to a new town in New South Wales. The family faces unexpected challenges as their eldest son, Charlie Mollison, suffers from severe autism which causes anxiety for him in social situations and instead he uses sign language to communicate. While Thomas is near turning 16, he finds it difficult to have a close bond with Charlie, since he finds his older brother an embarrassment in public. Though further on into the movie Thomas starts opening up to accept the fact that his brother isn’t going to be ‘normal’ as he wishes and their relationship develops into something much stronger. Throughout the film Down uses SWAT codes to present to the audience, the idea of how society today looks at people who have some form of autism, which is predominantly negative. In most situations people that have not experienced what it is like to be around someone who has autism, genuinely judges the person and even the family and sees that person as a nuisance. Daily routines are most of the time simple to a lot of people so when someone sees that another person is struggling it can lead to bullying not only in the schooling period but as that person matures and grows up.
For example, in the beginning of the film it cuts to a scene where the family is moving their things into the house and Charlie is banging a wooden spoon on the grass making a lot of noise. These three younger boys come up on their bikes and the boy in the middle asks “Why’s your brother a spastic?” Thomas replies “He’s not a spastic, he’s autistic.” Then cuts back to the younger boy that says “Same diff” and rolls his eyes following. Down has used these audio codes and actions to show to the audience how people can react if they’re not accustomed to other people with autism.
The term ‘spastic’ relates to someone who is affected by muscle spasms making their body look uncontrollable. ‘Spastic’ has been formed into a derogatory remark against disabled people who cannot control themselves fully. This scene has been created to show the way society would act when asking questions about people with a disability such as autism. Although Down has used a younger boy to ask the question, as younger kids haven’t quite developed a filter on open questions as much as adults have. This piece of evidence makes the audience feel some kind of anger and frustration towards the younger boy for asking such a question, but also makes us feel sorry for Charlie as people with autism can be called such harsh names, and it not only affects Charlie but also the family as they have to witness their son being verbally abused and it doesn’t have a positive affect on anyone. Down wants the viewers to feel this way as they can learn to understand how people with autism are treated, as she herself would know exactly how families are affected by these remarks. Through this dialogue as viewers, it is clear to see the emotional impact it makes on us as viewers because we start to experience the same feelings that the family have because we are connecting with the characters in the film.
Further into the film there is a scene in the supermarket, where Simon doesn’t have enough money to buy some of the items that Charlie wants, so he has to put them back but Charlie doesn’t understand this and has a big tantrum at the checkout and everyone is watching it. Multiple technical codes have been used to show this scene, and show the emotion on not only Charlie’s face but also the way the other shoppers are watching this scene go down.
Many people can’t understand other people with autism if they do not know anyone personally who has it, such as a close friend or a family member. In this scene the shoppers and check out workers are all staring, with no emotion on their faces, at Charlie because they can’t comprehend what is with wrong with him and why he is acting in that way. If you cannot afford something you put it back, simple right? But for Charlie this is harder to process because it is mixing up his routine that he is familiar with. People with autism can act out in different ways such as having tantrums, this is the easiest way to show their confusion, stress, anxiety or anger when they’re unable to express their emotions verbally. This scene can make the audience feel intimidated and scared of Charlie because of the way he is acting and he could do something unpredictable, but also we feel sympathetic for the family with a bit of anger, because they’re trying to control Charlie but he is getting louder. It doesn’t help either when everyone in the shop is frozen still, watching Simon try and pull Charlie off the floor and drag him out of the shops and do nothing about it but continue to watch. Down wants the audience to feel these emotions and feelings and understand what it is like when a serious misunderstanding can occur with someone who has autism. Technical codes are used drastically throughout this scene, with camera shots such as medium and close up shots back to back. Down has used close up shots to show the emotionless expressions on everyones faces, as the shoppers look a little annoyed and bothered. Also medium shots have been put into place to show peoples actions, as they step back and space themselves from Charlie so show they don’t want to get involved. This scene has a tremendous impact on the audience because it is so confronting to us as viewers to see what can happen if someone with autism can’t get their feelings out in a way ordinary people can. Through this scene we are being shown how people act in general towards others with autism and how they look at them.
All throughout this film Down has demonstrated to the viewers how people with autism are seen as by the people of todays society. As someone who has not experienced a family member or close friend with autism, I cannot relate to Down the way she can, but living with a family member that is a slower developer than most kids their age to me is relatable. I believe I can relate to how Down has portrayed an outsiders point of view on slow developing skills, to be a bit negative with the harsh name calling and teasing about being slower. The idea of autism through another persons eye may not be a positive message but it can teach a good lesson to others to think about their actions and words, because they don’t know the full story. I feel Down is successful in getting this message across because she has had such a personal experience with autism and she knows how it feels to be treated the way Charlie and Thomas are treated.