This comedy drama follows the travails of a suburban Aussie family, and in particular the struggles of teenager Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), who is largely responsible for the care of his autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford).

Gentle character study could’ve done with more story.

Thomas Mollison is a teenager trying to fit into a new school in western suburban Sydney in the early 1990s. Up until now, his family has been his life.

Dad’s in the army, and they’ve moved around a lot. And with his middle-aged mum pregnant, Thomas has to take more responsibility for Charlie, his autistic brother.

Problem is, when Tom falls for high school girl Jackie, he suddenly finds all of this an impossible burden. Particularly Charlie, whose infantile, sometimes genitally fixated antics are beyond embarrassing.

Writer-director Elissa Down’s The Black Balloon works as a gentle character study. The performances are strong, with Rhys Wakefield anchoring the movie as the confused and awkward Thomas.

Luke Ford convinces in the difficult role of an autistic and, after some early faltering moments, supermodel Gemma Ward finds her stride as equal parts beautiful woman and gawky girl. Toni Collette and Erik Thomson do well as the fiercely protective, but exasperated parents.

Down has lived her subject – she grew up with two autistic brothers – and the conflicts feel real. She also has a good eye and the film is elegantly shot. But The Black Balloon could’ve done with more story.

This is pretty much just about Tom coming to terms with the fact that Charlie isn’t going to change. Because it’s something we grasp immediately, we wonder why he doesn’t.

There are also disparate elements – Tom’s life-saving course sub-plot leads nowhere and we can only wonder why dad talks to a teddy bear. But when Down hits the right notes, as in the rain-shower scene, the film is truly lovely.

For me, The Black Balloon never reached the heights of the similar Aussie film Clubland, but it is an enjoyable and heartfelt slice of life that rates three stars.