There’s something vaguely sinister about those talking GPS navigators that now seem to come standard with every new car. Maybe it’s the robotic voice, which could never speak to the frustration of running late or sitting in traffic. More likely, it’s the illusion of control — the false sense that everything is going to be fine so long as you follow instructions and keep your eyes on the road.
Marja-Lewis Ryan’s “6 Balloons” hinges on such modern details of disquiet, with most of this perceptive (if not especially powerful) drama set inside a chatty sedan as a woman named Katie (“Broad City” star Abbi Jacobson) drives her heroin-addict brother (Dave Franco) around Santa Clarita in a desperate search for the help he needs. The GPS is so talkative that it occasionally feels like the car might have more lines than any of the actual characters. It says “Turn right here” and “turn left there,” the voice reorienting us like an automated Greek chorus (“turn around,” it pleads when Katie steers into a drug-infested alley). Over time, the sheer confidence of the computer’s flat monotone provides a harsh contrast to Katie’s anxiety, perhaps even amplifying it in some ways — the more well-ordered the world becomes, the deeper we feel our individual discords.
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Based on the experiences of producer Samantha Housman, “6 Balloons” is too short and stunted to leave much of an impression, but the film convincingly illustrates one of the core truths about addiction: It doesn’t really give a shit about your agenda. It’s chaos, it cares only about itself, and it feeds on collateral damage. Addiction isn’t separate from everyday life, or parallel to it — it’s intertwined, totally enmeshed, and pulling at either end only tightens the knots.
Katie doesn’t need to be reminded. She’s been down that road before. So far as we can tell, she’s the only member of her family who still talks to her younger brother, Seth. A control-freak so determined to make everything just right that she actually threatens to re-roll the pigs in a blanket that a friend baked for her, Katie just can’t seem to accept that her brother is beyond saving. And when Seth doesn’t show up to the surprise birthday shindig that she’s planning for her boyfriend, it’s naturally up to Katie to leave her own party and go see what’s keeping him. When she gets to his apartment, there’s mail piled up on the floor. And so — with her cell phone blowing up with messages from the friends and family she left at home — Katie, Seth, and his toddler daughter Ella (Charlotte and Madeline Carel) hop in the car in search of help.
What initially seems poised to become a journey through the byzantine world of methadone clinics and emergency rehab centers sputters into something even more desperate (and potentially more compelling) when insurance problems force Seth to take more drastic measures. Essentially, Katie needs to find her strung out sibling a fix, or the withdrawal might get the better of him. It’s an involving dilemma, and one that’s dramatized here with a painful hint of personal experience.
The dynamic between Katie and Seth is lived-in and estranged; they bicker with the no-bullshit honesty that siblings develop like a secret language, even if the writing isn’t sharp enough to bring us into the fold. Franco spends a lot of the movie sweating in the backseat, but does so with a real hurt and self-loathing etched across his face. “I’m a piece of shit,” he offers to his sister as an excuse, and you can tell that he means it. The more that Seth gets what he wants, the more heartbreaking Franco’s performance becomes.
Jacobson carries most of the movie on her shoulders, displaying a strength that’s always bubbled just beneath the surface of her comedic work on “Broad City.” Her desperation is achingly believable from the start, and her nuanced portrayal is shaded with a pallid kind of love as Katie’s concern for her brother twists her into an accomplice. The decision to cast traditionally comedic actors in the two lead roles further cements the idea that addiction can happen to anyone — you can picture these two being hilarious together, the people they could be hanging over the movie like a heavy fog.
It’s a shame, then, that “6 Balloons” undercuts its characters. Running an inexplicably brief 71 minutes, the film — easy to imagine as an intense, real-time account — is clipped and abbreviated from the start. A lot of the movie feels like its own CliffsNotes, like we’re hearing it secondhand. The scenes between Katie and Seth are cut down to their most basic elements, welded together with a mush of overbearing music, and diluted further by a leaden voiceover track (passages from a self-help audiobook that too conveniently speak to Katie’s predicament).
It’s a testament to Ryan’s talents that the movie works best when it slows down and zeroes in on the details (a poignant sequence in a pharmacy bathroom is particularly well-staged), but the frequent retreats into familiar indie tropes grow all the more nauseating once we recognize the unrealized potential on display. Much like its frazzled protagonist, “6 Balloons” has a strong sense of direction, but the film is too constricted to let go, embrace the detours, and allow life to takes it course.
“6 Balloons” is now streaming on Netflix.