Enabler (noun): a person who enables another to persist in negative or self-destructive behaviour. The Netflix original film 6 Balloons explores the dynamics between ‘addict’ and ‘enabler’ through the lens of a tense brother/sister relationship.
6 Balloons is simple in its delivery – following the events of a single day and offering little by way of backstory. Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is an anxious and hyper-vigilant 30-something busy preparing for her boyfriend’s surprise birthday party, while dodging critical remarks from her overbearing mother (Jane Kaczmarski). After collecting her brother Seth (Dave Franco), Katie quickly uncovers that he has relapsed on heroin. With Seth’s young daughter in tow, she casts her commitments aside and drives across Los Angeles in search of a detox centre.
First-time writer/director Marja-Lewis Ryan drew upon the real-life experiences of producer Samantha Housman in developing this confronting screenplay. The dialogue hints that Katie and Seth are encountering an unrelenting Groundhog Day of sorts, but how they’ve found themselves in their immediate situation is not crucial to the film’s storytelling. What is important is their co-dependency and how Katie, despite her purest intentions, ultimately enables Seth’s addiction.
Katie exhibits all the trademark signs of an ‘enabler’ – sacrificing happiness, money, and time to give priority to the addict’s needs, difficulty expressing emotions, acting out of fear, lying to others to cover the addict’s behaviour and exhibiting resentment. She’s in denial about her own actions and struggles to see the line between helping her brother and encouraging his destructive behaviour.
The bonds we have with our siblings is different to any other. 6 Balloons is smart in using the powerful brother/sister dynamics as a vehicle for shedding light on addiction. The two characters are connected in such a way that sees Katie experiencing the highs and lows of Seth’s addiction as if it were her own. The intense anxiety as he enters physical and mental withdrawal. The feeling of euphoria when he finally gets that hit he’s been craving and returns to a version of himself that is recognisable. Although Katie is high on a feeling of nostalgia, a contrived smile every so often reveals that she is preparing herself for when Seth will inevitably fade away again.
‘Hold on tight and never let go’ – these are the words spoken by a calm and steady voice at the film’s outset. They’re what is assumed to be Katie’s internal thoughts: playing in the form of self-help audio tapes. While the execution is somewhat artificial, it’s evident why this element was so vital for Marja-Lewis Ryan to include. The tracks communicate the inner chatter of the ‘enablers’ mind. Camouflaged beneath the surface of a desire to act out of love is self-destructive guidance, designed to keep Katie in a loop of unhealthy behaviour. Playing the nursery rhyme ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ repeatedly as they drive around the streets of LA solidifies this theme. So long as Katie holds on tight and never let’s go, the cycle is fated to repeat.
With a brief runtime of 75 minutes, it’s natural to argue that the storyline could have been drawn out in more detail. As a debut movie however, it is clever to target a single aspect of addiction rather than attack the complex issue head-on.
6 Balloons will resonate especially with those who know what it means to love someone grappling with addiction. Those who haven’t had such exposure may struggle to understand Katie’s choices. Having Seth’s daughter Ella (Charlotte Carel) along for the tumultuous ride is confronting, but acts as a reminder of the real-life experiences of the children. While she cannot grasp the situation, it is clear that Ella is aware that something is wrong.
There is a poignant scene where Katie asks ‘Did something happen to you to make you like this?’, Seth answers no. Frustrated and confused she replies, ‘We came from the same place’. There is no cookie-cutter explanation as to why or how a person becomes an addict. Life is all about the choices we make. To those who’d do anything to help, this film has a clear message – destructive behaviour will not change without consequences.
Dave Franco lost 20 pounds for this movie.