Netflix has been leaning very heavily into the indie film scene, and has garnered critical acclaim for their work. Even so, they are still misunderstood by some more, let’s say, traditional cinephiles. As a Netflix user (see blog name) I love the ability that Netflix is giving to the average film lover. We may never in our entire lives be able to see indie darlings at SXSW, or art cinema at Cannes, but we are able to stream and view some of the best of cinema right at home. Not only that, but these amazing filmmakers, cinematographers and writers are able to find their audience, and create art with creative freedom.
This is the case for Marja-Lewis Ryan’s drama 6 Balloons, which premiered on Netflix following a world premiere at SXSW. The film explores the suffocation of loving an addict, the inability to stop repeating enabling and destructive decisions, and learning how –– as the self-help audio says –– let go with love. 6 Balloons is a nuanced, but visceral plunge into the deep end of denial, and it captured the internal struggle perfectly.
The film stars two actors known more for their comedic work in some of their best, and most notable dramatic roles (IMO it is a very satisfying experience to see comedians go indie drama). We meet Katie (Abbie Jacobson from Broad City) as she is planning a party for her boyfriend. By all accounts she is a thriving young woman; two helpful if slightly involved roommates, over-bearing mother, slightly oblivious father. Check, check and check. But someone is missing. Her brother Seth (Dave Franco of, well, the Franco bros.) and his young daughter, Ella, are not at the party yet. This does not set well with Katie, and we the viewers already know that she has experienced moments like this before.
Thus begins out intimate journey into the dependent, heartbreaking relationship of Katie and her brother Seth, an addict. She goes to his house to pick him up and notices his behavior. In a tense scene she demands to see his arms, you can hear the conflicting emotions in her voice. Hope that he is clean, and the resignation that he has fallen back into bad habits. A frustrated Katie drives him to the detox center, only to learn that his insurance doesn’t cover the $5,000 treatment he needs. The preparations of the party go on without her as she tries to take Seth to another treatment center, but his withdrawal become too severe. His own body is failing him. Franco prepared well for this role and his portrayal is both riveting and disturbing in its authenticity. Ryan shows the reality of this disease that affects so many, regardless of race, stature and age. She also is sure to show the web of people addiction effects. It is not dealt with in isolation. As Seth goes through it so does his sister, so does his young daughter.
Throughout the film Ryan plays, or overlays audio from a self-help tape. We can go literal and infer that Katie has been listening to these tapes, but we can also take a more philosophical viewpoint and almost treat the tapes as an objective, narrator of sorts. The tapes are a little cliché, using a sinking boat as an extended metaphor, but they are used as very effective, and almost emotional dividers throughout the story. It is almost as if we are constantly inserting a new tape, steeling ourselves to complete this journey with Katie. The final scene alone showed me the importance of the tapes, the emotional and suffocating reality of admission was riveting.
That came down to Jacobson for me. She was compelling without dramatic, preachy monologues, there was an emotional fatigue that you could see and feel from her character. She had done all this before, and she might do it again. Her willingness to enable was almost as strong has her brother’s addiction. As the night spiraled out of control, the tapes oversaw with almost maddening calm, “you chose to get on the boat, you chose to drown, you chose hitting rock bottom.”
When the film ended I felt a desire to know more. What happened next. I felt invested into the lives of Katie and Seth, and I think that was the point. Even in 74 minutes I was apart of this struggle, Ryan had created fully realized characters with skilled writing and superb casting. The short time does make sense, we are only given a glance at the full devastation of addiction. This whole film takes place in one evening, one surprise party. The limited scope of 6 Balloons reveals how much can be destroyed in just a few hours, but the wonderful direction shows a depth of impact that stayed with me long after the film was done.