6 Balloons (2018)

Directed by Marja-Lewis Ryan

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Told over a single night, 6 Balloons is a very intimate film about the relationship between Katie (Abbi Jacobson) and her heroin-addicted brother, Seth (Dave Franco).  The title is a pun that draws attention to the surprise birthday Katie has planned for her boyfriend and the heroin from which her brother is currently experiencing withdrawal.

There is one terrific sequence within this movie, but around that the story is a little scattered.  It takes a new, interesting angle on the drug addict story, focusing not just on someone who has to care for that addict but who is apparently black sheep’d by the family for doing so.  Seth, Katie’s parents acknowledge, will keep doing this, but it’s Katie who still has a chance to save herself and to, in effect, let go.

That dynamic feels honest, a painful reality of caring for someone who won’t care for himself, but it is also a bit underdeveloped.  We see Katie interact with her mother (Jane Kaczmarek) in only one scene and with her father (Tim Matheson) for even less than that.  Later in the movie their disappointment with her is meant to sting, but they hardly feel like fully fleshed out characters for it to matter.

Most of the movie deals with just Katie and Seth, along with Seth’s young daughter, as they make their way around Los Angeles, both knowing he needs to be put in detox.  Various issues with Seth’s insurance will keep him in her temporary care, and when things get to be too extreme Katie has to resort to other measures to offer him any kind of comfort.

Because the story is so self-contained, I think it should remain that way until the end.  The relationship is about Katie learning to let go, even when it’s someone you love, but we’re led to believe that she is at last succumbing to the pressure put on her by family and friends.  We never see a single moment that compels her to change her own ways, even after she seems to hit rock bottom alongside Seth but then experiences a certain joy with him anyways.

So what I really like about this story is the way it presents a point of view I don’t remember seeing before, at least not recently.  Katie’s problem, perhaps, is that she may enable Seth where others don’t.  His parents have probably cut him off multiple times, and yet he remains off the wagon because Katie is always there as a lifeline, someone who will, when push comes to shove, buy drugs for him in skid row.

Later Katie will go to a pharmacy to purchase needles which the pharmacist apparently knows will be used to inject drugs (but sells them anyway).  Seth will limp inside, sweaty and disoriented, and then sneak off to the bathroom to use what Katie has just bought.  In the bathroom there will be a striking visual in which Katie changes Seth’s daughter’s diaper while he silently injects heroin a few feet away.  It’s a moment that would make for a very captivating short film.

In that sequence we have a very clear understanding of what’s going on and what’s wrong.  Katie wants to take care of her brother, but she doesn’t know how.  She feels guilty for choosing, in some ways, the easy way out, and she must deal with the guilt not only on the inside but so too in the ways other parties regard her.  This is the most direct, painful part of the film.

I think the rest of it is a little muddied because it all seems awkwardly constructed around this moment.  The beginning establishes Katie’s friends and family, but we spend far too much time with them early on considering how little they factor into the substantive story.  Including her boyfriend (Dawan Owens), they are just there to cast judgment on Katie, something the audience itself is likely to do and which makes those other characters moot.

The heart of the story, of course, is between Katie and Seth, but the only moments of joy/compassion between them come when he’s high.  It’s heartbreaking because we see what Katie misses about her brother and what he can no longer really access sober, at least not at this point in his life.

The movie will end with a strange visual that’s established early and returned to throughout the story.  It involves Katie listening to a self-help book and picturing herself and Seth in her car as it fills with water.  Eventually she says she can’t breathe, and she opens the door, returning to real life and successfully “letting go.”

I didn’t find it to be as cathartic as it’s intended to be.  While I don’t mind a melancholic or even uneventful finale, this conclusion didn’t seem to offer any sense that Katie (and certainly not Seth) had changed her ways.  Maybe she walks a few more steps and then turns right around.

6 Balloons is a nice, sentimental but harsh story.  It’s painful, the acting is good, and that pharmacy sequence in particular was unexpectedly riveting, for a variety of reasons.  Yet, at only about 70 minutes it still feels a bit too long, and much of the set up, as well as the finale, feels disjointed and straight out of a different movie entirely, like some kind of HBO limited series on the upper middle class struggles of white privilege while the core of the movie has nothing to do with and nothing to comment on that world.

Up Next: Game, Over Man! (2018), Lean On Pete (2018), Hanna (2011)

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