At every film festival, you come across movies with genuine heart and soulful performances. The kind where one intuitively understands the sincerity that is emanating from the director, who seems to be speaking from a place of knowing, tangible pain. It is also these earnest qualities makes such a film’s narrative limitations and underdeveloped indie structure all the more unpleasant to note, as is the case with 6 Balloons, writer-director Marja-Lewis Ryan’s intimate if somewhat empty debut at SXSW that still boasts two sorrowful performances by Abbi Jacobson and Dave Franco.
Premiering this week on Netflix, 6 Balloons is the familiar and eternal story of addiction, and how it not only shatters one life, but all those around it. Delicately sketched, if without much definition, the film articulates the anguish felt by family members who can do little more than sit back and watch or otherwise risk enabling the self-destruction.
The chief enabler of the film is Katie (Jacobson), the sister and aunt who acts much more like a mother to her brother’s daughter. That is because Seth (Franco) is supposedly a former heroin addict, yet is really a ticking time bomb until he starts using again—a detonation that apparent has already happened before the film begins. Despite Katie trying to launch a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend Jack (Dawan Owens), she ends up driving Seth and three-year-old Ella (played by real-life twins Charlotte and Madeline Carel) around town, first in search of a rehab clinic that will take Seth in between errand runs for balloons and cake… and then for a fix that might save his life, at least for tonight, while the party goes on without her and the three-year-old in the backseat who is watching her father crumble beneath withdrawal.
It’s a simple and sparse setup, presented in nigh real-time over a feature length that barely clears the 70-minute mark. However, what it has, and what it ultimately must entirely rely on, is two strong turns by its central performers. Abbi Jacobson particularly proves to be something of a revelation as Katie, a tightly wound and put-upon sister and daughter. With a personality that spends all day planning the best outfit to go with the best pigs in a blanket—yet still earns a decided lack of approval from her mother—she is the antithesis of her brother, who while off of smack is a bitter, selfish rule-breaker. And when on it, he is all of those things, but also giddy, charming, and sweetly devoted to his sister and child, if only because they’re the only two who haven’t given up on him.
Nevertheless, this film is about the crossroads Katie finds herself at to do just that. By the end of the film, which includes her buying his “medicine” in the seediest part of town and trying to get him a single needle from a pharmacy, she will need to reach a decision that is obvious. This conflict is underscored by an on-the-nose visual metaphor that is reprised throughout the movie: She is in a car with Seth as water fills in, threatening to swallow her just as whole as it has her brother.
It’s an evocative image, but its presentation, like the film it appears in, is strikingly broad and overdone for such a short feature. It’s also otherwise buttressed by achingly sentimental tropes that are too often leaned upon in talky dramas with the word “addict” always implicitly on its lips. From the repetitive beat of the daughter crying in the backseat with the most forward of smash-cuts to the judging eyes Katie encounters across the counter by a pharmacist—and the obligatory bonding moment of her and Seth ruining that woman’s night. It’s all so familiar it errs close to being a cliché in experimentation.
It’s a brief portrait with a devastating subject, but it feels unfinished, relying too often on well-worn techniques to complete an intimate study that may have simply needed a second pass. Despite this, Jacobson gives a nervy and embittered turn that will shock her Broad City fans, which in turn indicates a long career after that sketch series. Dave Franco also follows up his amiable work in The Disaster Artist with a much more layered performance as a man who is entirely winsome in his ability to draw sympathy and simple laughs. Which is to say, he is terrific at channeling a user who loves his family, but not enough to open the door for them as the water fills ever closer to his pupils.
As such, it is one of Netflix’s more affecting movies we’ve seen in the last few months, even if that effect includes the desire for it to build to something more substantial.
6 Balloons premieres on Netflix on April 6.