Adolescence is difficult for a lot of reasons. It’s not just the physical or chemical changes that make things hard, but the social ones, too. Suddenly the things that didn’t seem to matter are all that matter in determining how well we get along with others. Sometimes it’s conforming to societal pressures which creates trauma and sometimes it’s trying to combat them. But where things might happen and live as whispers, cell phones and social media make a moment last a lifetime. Up for nomination in The 2019 Student Academy Awards is short film Balloon, directed by Jeremy Merrifield and co-written by Dave Testa, which tackles everything from school shootings, toxic masculinity, gender expectations, and social norms in a brief 17-minute story.
Junior high schooler Sam Wheeler (Jonah Beres) wants to do nothing more than keep his head down, get through the day, and hang out with his friend Adam (Jaylin Ogle). All of that changes in the aftermath of a fight with Jason Kingsley (Carson Severson) as their classmates continuously share a recording of the fight online and send Sam derisive digital messages. As if Jason endlessly taunting Sam about their fight wasn’t bad enough, Adam, too, begins to pull away. The anger building within him, Sam can see no way out of the situation until he discovers a latent super-ability. Backed into a corner and possessing the power to do something about it, the fate of Sam’s future hangs in the balance of his choice.
It doesn’t matter how far removed from high school and junior high you are, there are some things that just fling you right back to those moments, those feelings of absolute terror and discomfort. Gratefully, most parents these days grew up without their lives catalogued online, like some strange social experiment. In most cases, they could make mistakes and grow past them. Not now. It’s just not possible when almost everyone carries a camera in their pocket that’s attached to the world. This specter is but one aspect which flows in and out of Balloon with incredible ease. Considering that the film opens with a school shooting drill (something which is rapidly becoming the norm is schools of all ages), there’s already a sense of dread billowing beneath the surface. Add in a bully, social torture, and alienation from friends and family, the first expectation is an out-pouring of violence. It’s a fair assumption and one which Merrifield and Testa seem intent on testing within the audience. As Sam develops his abilities, the question immediately becomes: what kind of origin story are we watching? Brilliantly, Merrifield and Testa construct a story that can go a multitude of ways and remain authentic to the initial premise. Even more so is the fact that the expectations of the audience, the tension they feel, is all born from how they react to Sam and his situation, a reaction based on their own personal experience of that time in their lives.
Moving past the emotional reaction, Merrifield and Testa also insert quite a bit of detail into the film which completely changes the way one views the events as they unfold. For example, the audience is never privy to what started the initial fight. It’s left out as only the fallout from fight seems initially important. Keyword being “initially.” As the story plays out, we’ve given a chance to see more and more of the fight before the conclusion. In these moments, as it relates to the conclusion, is a clear echoing, not just of the players, but of what incites it. In these comparative moments, a metaphorical chorus rings out as Balloon places before us a critical aspect of growing up — the choices we make matter regardless of who’s watching. These are the things which define us and set us on our path. If we, as a society, place value on oppressive, violent behavior, then we cannot be shocked by violence. If we teach our children the value of fear over love, to seek out acclaim from the masses versus personal worth, then we cannot be surprised at the shallowness we may see around us. All of this hits like a sledgehammer, even as Merrifield and Testa build toward it with surprising and natural ease. To their credit, Beres and Severson make even the smallest aspects of their performances have meaning. In combination with strong direction, impressive SFX, an emotionally compelling story, and their performances, the audience is taken on a powerful ride.
Balloon is currently a finalist in The 2019 Student Academy Awards with a winner announced on Thursday, October 17th, 2019. For information on upcoming screenings or other news, be sure to go to the official film website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.