by Brandon Thomas
Movies set in or around circuses often have a darkness to them. If the animal cruelty doesn’t get to you then the limitless tales of alcoholism and depression will. Oh, and one of them has Pee-wee Herman running around. Thankfully Balloon Animal leaves the cruelty and boozing behind in favor of a thoughtful character piece about isolation and expectations.
Poppy Valentine (Katherine Waddell) makes the balloon animals at Valentine’s Traveling Circus, owned by her overbearing father Dark Valentine (Ilia Volok). The once bustling circus now plays to sparse, apathetic crowds. Dark’s intense dependence on his daughter is fueled by his wife’s abandonment of him years before. After her father offers her a more significant role in the business, Poppy begins to question her place in the circus, her father’s life, and the world at large.
At first glance, the premise of Balloon Animal reads like half of dozen indie dramas released since the mid-90s. That assessment isn’t completely untrue, to be fair. However, the difference is in the execution. Writer-director Em Johnson delivers an honest – but never quite brutal – drama that always feels real to its characters. Poppy’s trajectory through the film is natural and doesn’t end up where you think it will.
Setting this story inside a traveling circus is a fascinating choice. Johnson shows little interest in digging into the mechanics of the circus or its day-to-day. The focus is on the people who live and work inside this nomadic community. For them, it’s just a job (for now). For Poppy, though, there’s a cost of isolation and monotony that she’s unable to ignore and eventually begins to reject.
The performances are just as notable as the film’s tight storytelling. Waddell’s naturalistic charm makes her a great focal point. She delicately straddles Poppy’s creeping loneliness while allowing the character’s meek pragmatism to shine through. It’s not a showy role, but Waddell does so much with it. Likewise, Volok turns what could be a wholly unlikable character into someone with pathos. His ferocity is equaled only by his ability to elicit empathy from the audience.
Balloon Animal doesn’t end with any definitive answers for its characters. What it does, though, is give them a stopping point for this particular story in their lives and a starting point for an entirely new one.