BALLOON ANIMAL – Review
This review of the movie, BALLOON ANIMAL is starting off slowly, which serves a couple of purposes. It takes more patience than usual to read, as does the film to enjoy. The decision begins with writer/director Em Johnson, who has earned quite a few awards and nominations on the festival circuit (including the St. Louis International one) for a handful of shorts before this feature.
An old cliché (guess that’s redundant, since all cliches must be old to qualify) that has been the basis for many books and movies is a protagonist who tires of the humdrum of an average childhood or adult life and runs off to join a circus. This one gives us a young woman named Poppy Valentine (Katherine Waddell) who is been raised in her father’s (Ilia Volok) traveling circus and feels like running away to live in the mainstream. Spending her life as a magician’s assistant who also whips up the eponymous latex creatures for the kiddies between shows has lost whatever romance it once had, or that outsiders might assume exists.
Poppy struggles with how to handle her gnawing discontent, including how it will affect her dad. He is already bitter and depressed by her mother’s departure and the dwindling audiences threatening the demise of their entire industry. We see her world as being so sequestered that forays into the culture of their customers are as alien to her as the rumspringa year might be for Amish teens. Even worse, they usually take that step away from their comfort zone at 16 years of age, and with the full support of their community. She is 24, and knows it would devastate her father and alienate the few friends she has from growing up with them under the big top.
Poppy’s process is a slow and quiet one, with considerable suspense about what she will do and whether any of several dangled unpleasant possibilities will materialize. Waddell, who has worked with Johnson a couple of times before, was a good choice for the lead. We can see her internal struggles even between lines of dialog and the interactions with the others who will be affected by her decisions. Dad mostly seems like such a jackass that one may wonder why it has taken her so long. In other moments, he is a more sympathetic character, clinging desperately to the only existence he has known or wanted as societal changes whittle away at its financial viability.
Johnson gets solid performances from all of her players. The film’s limited budget works to her advantage, making the circus small and rundown; the audiences small; the town of this current stay is nothing special. These aren’t the times for those romanticized circus spectacles of yore, when a Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston dazzled packed bleachers with pizzazz aplenty. I’m not even close to the target demographic for this sensitive depiction of a woman’s inner conflicts and struggles, but the film kept me in suspense and invested in her outcome. And that’s a good thing.
BALLOON ANIMAL is available via video-on-demand on most platforms as of Friday, April 7.
RATING: 2 out of 4 stars