Balloon Animal

Year: 2022
Production Co: First Bloom Films
Director: Em Johnson
Writer: Em Johnson
Cast: Katherine Waddell, Ilia Volok

Poppy (Katherine Waddell) is a circus performer who's worked with her dad, manager and the circus owner and ringleader Dark (Ilia Volok) her whole life, making balloon animals, being his sidekick in the ring, taking care of things behind the scenes and more, living and working on the road since she was a little girl.

When we meet her the troupe has put on its last performance for the season in a small town, and in between preparing to pack everything up to hit the road again, decide where to go next and figure out with her Dad if they should change the act up or be traditional (and mostly disagreeing), Poppy sees another slice of life she can't get out of her head.

It happens when she meets a young man in the middle of the night – the truck she was going to use is out of fuel so she has to lug two jerry cans all the way to the local gas station on the back of a pulled wagon.

He's filling up nearby, and even though he's out of focus in the background you can tell he's smitten with the pretty young woman, glancing up and trying to figure out how to talk to her.

He eventually strikes up a conversation and despite her reticence he manages to convince her to let him drive her back to the field camp where the circus has been performing and where everyone lives and works in trailers and caravans.

There's really not a lot to talk about to relate the story after that. As the days go on and she can see her father wants everything around him to stay the same forever, Poppy starts to wonder – and eventually want – to live in the world outside.

And it's a fairly neat device for a story. Plenty of people dream of running away to the circus, so watching the desire to run away from the circus and live like other people do grow in someone is an interesting idea.

Waddell is gorgeous and I'd watch her in anything, and her burgeoning mutual fascination with the young man (Michael David Wilson) is naturalistic and heart warming.

But it's not perfect. It's a very soft story with no real high stakes emotion apart from a few arguments with barely-raised voices, but (seemingly contradictory) it's also not very subtle, turns in the plot and the way they're staged and executed too direct and simplistic. A bit more subtext would have gone a long way.

It's also very hard to feel any sympathy for the father. He's an idiot who still thinks his daughter's a little girl (or wants her to be), too blind to see what's happening right in front of his face and trying to bribe her with more duties in the job without realising that's what she wants to get away from, unable to even conceive that she isn't as devoted to the circus as he is.

He also has the Russian accent of a bad Bond villain (obviously belonging to the actor) but I found it distracting when the rest of them are all American. Was it supposed to be saying something about his character?

Still, to writer/director Em Johnson's credit (and somewhat counter to the 'no subtlety' accusation), the movie has the most perfect ending. Poppy has argued about her growing discontent with both her dad and her two best friends Sadie and Lala, who she works with and has grown up with, and without giving too much away, the resolution is hers alone without it being about her making up with everyone and everyone giving her their blessing.

She sits down on a bed, starts to watch TV and the film ends. Nobody – not even Poppy herself – knows what the next day will bring, which is exactly what she wanted and what we wanted for her.

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