Every month, Netflix seems to release more content than there are hours in the day. For every breakout hit like Stranger Things, there are at least a dozen Darks. But when it comes to original content, Netflix truly suffers in promoting its original films. Compare how many shows you’ve heard about originating on Netflix to movies. If there are a dozen Darks for every Stranger Things, there’s a Bright for every hundred films like 6 Balloons.
6 Balloons is the debut feature from Marja-Lewis Ryan, and like many Netflix originals, was a highly praised independent feature that debuted at South by Southwest before being unceremoniously dumped onto Netflix without a theatrical release or promotion. This isn’t an uncharacteristic move for the service; Oscar nominee Mudbound was buried just last year on the service, making Netflix a very easy place for films to hide in plain sight. Much like that film, 6 Balloons is a challenging piece of cinema from a queer voice that asks challenging questions of ourselves. Whereas Mudbound dealt with ideas of racial unrest, 6 Balloons asks us the question of where love and care intersect with enabling a loved one’s addiction.
Abby Jacobson of Broad City stars as Katie, who is in the process of planning her spouse’s surprise birthday party. Her parents have tasked her with picking up her brother Seth (a never better Dave Franco) and his daughter Ella. Upon meeting up with the two, Katie discovers that Seth has relapsed and is using heroin again. After an ill-fated attempt to bring Seth to a detox facility, the three of them begin a long adventure across the span of one night to get Seth the help he needs.
Ryan’s debut feature is lean and stylistic yet never shies away from the dark reality of heroin addiction. Franco is onboard as a man suffering intense withdrawals, from the shakes and the sweats all the way to the uncontrollable bowel movements that physical withdrawals can bring upon a person. It isn’t all doom and gloom, though; Franco’s affection toward Katie feels lived in, and Jacobson plays Katie as a woman who deeply loves her brother enough to know he’s manipulating her and always has been. There’s a bright future for Jacobson in dramatic acting that might be surprising for those who have only seen her on Broad City. Child actors can be a mixed bag in movies, but twins Charlotte and Madeline Carel play Ella as an innocent, observing child who simply wants to play with her dad. These sequences, where Seth gets his fix and plays in the drug store with Ella, are heartbreaking juxtapositions with the prior scenes where he leaves his daughter alone in the car in a bad neighborhood just to get more drugs.
Although 6 Balloons is bold, it feels a bit incomplete at only 74 minutes. You get a strong feel for Katie and Seth’s relationships, but early scenes with Tim Matheson and Jane Kaczmarek as their parents speed by so fast you’ll forget that you even saw Malcolm’s mom and the dude from Animal House at all. Still, it’s alarming that a film with such intensity portrayed so honestly with two talented rising stars was buried so deep on Netflix. 6 Balloons is dark and dirty, but finds beauty in the breakdowns of both the addict and the enabler.