I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
AUSTIN — Chances are you know someone who has or is still struggling with substance abuse. It’s not a pretty picture, and it can be overwhelming from all angles.
To spend your weekend watching a Netflix movie about substance abuse may not seem ideal, but it’s a rewarding journey, especially with two well-known comedy actors who are exercising their dramatic strengths like they never have before.
6 BALLOONS premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival last month. Its story is not an overly complex one, but the subject at the center of its story is quite intricate.
In the film, Katie (Abbi Jacobson of BROAD CITY) is a bit of a control freak. She is trying to throw a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend (Dawan Owens) while resisting the urge of doing everything herself. But when her father (Tim Matheson) fails to pick up her brother Seth (a never-better Dave Franco), she decides to break away from the chaos of planning to get him herself.
However, when she arrives at his place, with unopened mail stacked everywhere and barely a life in it, Katie realizes her brother has relapsed. With Seth’s daughter in tow (played by both Charlotte and Madeline Carel), they travel around in the hope of getting him to a place to detox before the party starts.
First-time filmmaker Marja-Lewis Ryan packs a much harder punch than I was anticipating. Navigating the waters of addiction in film is tricky, yet it’s apparent right away from 6 BALLOONS specificity that the story comes from an honest place. As Ryan said in an interview during SXSW in Austin, it’s based on the life of her good friend and producing partner Samantha Housman, the production manager of CAPTAIN FANTASTIC and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES.
“[Housman] and I have been friends for over 12 years. In the time I’ve known her, her brother relapsed,” Ryan said. “She really did spend an entire evening driving him around to get him to detox. It was the most heartbreaking phone call to get from somebody you love terribly.”
It’s apparent that moment in their relationship had a significant impact on their lives. Ryan said she never forgot the emotions of that time. But when she noticed the substance abuse epidemic becoming more prevalent, she came back to Housman to ask if she could bring her story to the screen.
“I had never seen that story. I wanted to tell a story about addiction from the enabler’s perspective. [Housman] spoke with her family and they all agreed to share it,” Ryan said.
The depths Ryan’s film goes to, to paint a vivid picture of what it’s like to be both on drugs and be around people who are on them, are astonishing. It feels like you’re drowning, and 6 BALLOONS provides that visual metaphor in one pivotal scene.
“Somebody gave me the advice once of always having a central thesis and keep going back to it,” Ryan said. “Throughout the film, we leaned into the concept of drowning. I don’t know how to properly set a rig up on a car to achieve that, but I know how I wanted the camera to be framed to illustrate that feeling.”
In the scene, you see a car filling up with water with Jacobson and Franco inside. There are many tight shots, leading a meticulous viewer to believe the scene was merely shot inside a tank. But then there is one wide shot to show how they really put the actors inside a car full off water, while parked alongside a street. It’s technical wizardry on the level of Christopher Nolan.
“I remember when [Ryan] was writing the script. She wrote without dialogue and just the action, and it gave me a panic attack,” Housman said. “Because of how intimate the film is, we wanted it to still feel cinematic. So we looked for ways to illustrate these thoughts and ideas. We wanted something to show how Katie was drowning emotionally. It was a process to figure out how to get it across.”
Ryan said they filled the car up practically on the street. They had to remove the engine to keep the talent out of harm’s way, so that oil wouldn’t out. They also had to heat up the water, because the actors are not wearing wetsuits in the scene.
“It was really hard, but when you do small movies, it’s so important to make your talent feel comfortable,” Housman said.
There are many different emotions that can be felt during the film’s brisk 77-minute run time. In the first 15 minutes, you might believe it’s a comedy. But as the story moves along and the situation gets more out of hand, you realize this is a more profound experience.
“For me, the only thing that ever helped me was to learn how to detach from the situation with love. If I wanted to live my own life, I had to detach myself from my brother with love,” Housman said. “It’s a hard thing to get your mind around if you’re going through a similar situation like in your own life, but we hope the film helps people get there.”
Ryan concluded the conversation by eloquently saying she’s interested in telling small personal stories with major social issues.
“I think being lonely is the hardest thing to be when you’re already sad. So the idea of making this movie and making someone feel less lonely is reason enough to make it.”
6 BALLOONS is now streaming on Netflix.