Katie (Abbi Jackson) is supposed to be standing underneath Christmas lights in a Los Angeles backyard, staring into the eyes of her beloved boyfriend Jack on his surprise birthday. Instead, she’s fast-walking through the dark, littered streets of Skid Row, watching her brother Seth (Dave Franco) take a shit right next to her SUV. With her toddler niece Ella (Madeline Carel) strapped into the backseat, Katie wonders how much emotional gas she can spare trying to help her heroin-addicted brother before they both hit empty.
With the niche intimacy of a short film and the storytelling capacity of a full-length run-time, “6 Balloons” captures an unfiltered, compelling glimpse at white collar drug addiction. “6 Balloons'” is only occasionally deflated by its lack of focus and avant garde imagery. But even in the conundrum of having too much to say without enough time to say it, the movie still delivers a powerful message through the raw, uncompromising performances of its lead stars.
Through Katie, Abbi Jacobson delivers nuance and complexity true to being a confused, early 30’s Angeleno. This is an age where everyone’s lives have come together or are finally starting too, and all Katie wants is for her goals and relationships to be in perfect sync. Seth, though, is the omnipresent needle that constantly bursts Katie’s bubble. Not only is he addicted to drugs but he has a daughter of his own, his recurring relapses even more deadly since they put two people at risk.
Dave Franco initially seems like an odd choice to take on the role of a down-and-out drug abuser, but he captures the eccentricity and anguish of someone whose emotional spectrum is on a constant elevator ride between the highs and lows of heroin. The fact that you wouldn’t immediately look at the loose, easygoing Franco and think of him as one to abuse drugs makes his Seth all the more gripping.
As Katie drives Seth towards recovery, we’re greeted with juxtaposing images of wealthy and impoverished Los Angeles. Seth even comments that one recovery center looks like a crack house, but ironically he doesn’t have the money to afford to be treated there. Seth’s condition feels less like a tragedy and more of a continuing annoyance for his seemingly upper class family, a problem that will solve itself if they look the other way long enough.
The class divisions of drug abuse is a provoking theme, but “6 Balloons” pushes it a bit too far when Katie and Seth venture to Skid Row. Known as an untamed area for the homeless, the whole sequence feels a bit contrived. It’s true that even though Seth would be one to hang out in other parts of LA, drug abuse doesn’t discriminate, and neither do the people who buy or sell. Still, the sequence feels like it was just set in Skid Row just to absorb some of its bad reputation, but it makes the film feel more artificial than raw.
Even with occasional hiccups, writer and director Marja-Lewis Ryan still delivers a story that feels intimate and familiar. “6 Balloons” has the abuse overtones of “Trainspotting,” the hopeless aimlessness of “Midnight Cowboy,” and beautifully orchestrated, sun-glistened shots that are reminiscent of “The Tree of Life.” We start with empathy for Katie and frustration for Seth, but by the drenching end, Ryan makes us wonder which character deserves more.