It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
At the center of "The Black Balloon" is Toni Collette's performance as the mother of an autistic son. The way she meets this challenge opens a way to understand all the other characters. Her son Charlie can be sweet and lovable. He can also make life for his family all but unbearable. Collette, as his mother, Maggie, has been dealing with him for 17 years and seems to have long ago made her peace with the fact that Charlie is who he is and is not going to change. As his mother, she loves him.
The film is concerned largely with how her other son, Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), exists with his brother. Tom is a military brat, used to new towns and new schools, affable but shy. He shares the burden of Charlie (Luke Ford), cares for him, loves him but is ashamed of him. Thomas is at just that point in adolescence when he's acutely conscious of all his defects, and in teenage social terms, Thomas is a defect.
In an acutely embarrassing scene, Thomas is revealed during a swimming class as a 16-year-old who cannot swim. This makes him a target for other students, who like many teenagers are quick to mock. One girl is nice to him. This is Jackie (Gemma Ward), a tall blond who quietly makes it clear that she likes Thomas. Thomas doesn't really know how to deal with this, but his first instinct is to try to hide Charlie from her. And a crisis is building at home; his mom is pregnant again; his dad, Simon (Erik Thomson), insists on bed rest for her, and when Simon is away, the burden of running the household falls on Thomas.
"The Black Balloon" establishes this family with a delicate mixture of tenderness and pain. Charlie is not made into a cute movie creature. He cannot speak, he cannot control his rages, he can have instant, violent mood changes. He runs through the neighborhood in his underpants. He throws a tantrum in a supermarket. He rubs his feces into the carpet. Thomas is supposed to protect Charlie from himself, and perform the damage control.