For 14-year-old Sam Wheeler (Jonah Beres, Stephanie), surviving junior high means doing everything possible to stay under the radar.
Unfortunately, that's not exactly easy when your unintended fight with the school bully, Jason (Carson Severson, Wrinkles & Other Unfortunate Objects), ends up going viral on social media and even your best friend, Adam (Jaylin Ogle, History Channel's Roots), starts to treat you like you're a pariah.
Balloon director Jeremy Merrifield is very open about the fact that he made this magnificent short film, a 2019 Student Academy Award finalist, for his nephew - a 12-year-old boy already trying to reconcile his own identity with the toxic masculinity so prevalent even in a society that is slowly, incrementally moving away from the age-old model of manhood that expects for men to be warriors, breadwinners, and other outdated stereotypes of masculinity.
Merrifield is also very open about the fact that he made Balloon with his brothers in mind, young men whom he grew up alongside who struggled with the same constraints and role expectations. He also notes, pointedly, that he made Balloon for the women in his life - women who for far too long have had to deal on a more than daily basis with toxic masculinity and its life interrupting impact. Some of those women, as well, collaborated on the making of Balloon.
Merrifield doesn't leave himself out of the equation. As a young boy, he seemingly knew that his own identity didn't fit with the definitions he was being handed by society. He was different. He felt alone, isolated, and often unwanted.
In some ways, Balloon gives him the superhero he needed as a child.
Balloon is a simply extraordinary short film, easily one of the best live-action shorts of 2019, a film that opens up with an absolutely on-fire school security guard (Paul Scheer, Black Monday, Veep) practically tormenting a class through a live-shooter drill.
I don't even have to tell you what that is anymore. They're the rule and not the exception.
So, you end up thinking you know exactly what Balloon is going to be. You can feel it in your bones. I'm not about to tell you what it actually is, but suffice it to say that the script by Merrifield and Dave Testa is much too smart and not even close to lazy. It's a brilliant script, one that practically begs to be a feature-length film yet also one that completely satisfies as a live-action short.
This is just a story that you really want to spend some more time with. You want to get to know these characters a little bit more. Okay, a whole lot more.
Beres is simply exceptional as Sam, aching in vulnerability even as he begins to discover his unexpected strengths. It's a remarkable performance that instantly makes you want to watch anything else the young man has made.
The supporting players are just as strong. Carson Severson's Jason is jarringly creepy and squirm-inducing, though to the credit of both he and Beres you're never quite sure which one you should find more unnerving. Jaylin Ogle also shines as Adam, while Paul Scheer well, yeah, I already told you he rocks it but he really, really hits a home run here in a relatively brief appearance that sets a strong tone early on that is essential for everything else that unfolds.
There's not enough superlatives to describe Frances Kroon's lensing for the film. Somehow, Kroon manages to capture the film's uncomfortable intimacies and atmospheric intimidation simultaneously. Kroon doesn't just capture action, but instead captures the internal and external forces behind the action. It's truly stellar work.
Kudos must also be given for Jerry Marsini's mood-setting production design and for Bowei Yue's patient and precise editorial work that lingers in all the right places. Emmy winning composer Ali Helnwein's original score sweeps us along through all the film's dramatic highs and lows and everything in between.
Balloon was the recent Grand Prix winner for Short Film at the HollyShorts Film Festival and screens next at FilmQuest on Sept. 10th with multiple other fests already on the horizon. For more information on Balloon, visit the film's official website linked to in the credits. If you get a chance, definitely check it out as this is definitely one of the live-action short highlights of 2019 and both cast and crew are people to watch for the future.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic