To love an addict is to know uncertainty, to get cozy with difficulty. Hell, to love an addict is to understand that love can’t catalyze recovery, and neither an abundance nor a scarcity of it will alter your adored’s chances of drowning, their limbs searching for stability, their lungs screaming for air.
Writer-director Marja-Lewis Ryan’s wrenching addiction drama 6 Balloons encases that truth in a snow globe, shakes it up to let the flurries float and fall, then smashes it — unidentifiable liquid, bits of glass, that ubiquitous snowman scattering everywhere. The film, Ryan’s directorial debut, itself isn’t at first contained and then, suddenly, not. From the get-go, 6 Balloons is a cat’s cradle rope maze, a kaleidoscope of mess, that super-glues scenes of heroin withdrawal to the heartbreak of seeing someone you’d do anything (even bad things, like enable their addiction) for suffer.
Given the film’s warmly-lit, sprightly atmosphere in the opening moments, you’d be forgiven for thinking 6 Balloons was a twee indie drama. We’re first introduced to the frenzied, frantic Katie (Abbi Jacobson) as she tries in vain to wrangle up her friends to help tackle a to-do list ahead of a surprise party for her boyfriend, Jack (Dawan Owens). There’s the food preparing, the fridge stuffing, the outfit coordinating (any shirt can be a dress if you try hard enough), and trying to not give way to her compulsions and simply do everything herself. Pre-party errand running goes relatively smoothly — Katie and her parents (Jane Kaczmarek, Tim Matheson) manage to successfully buy a bundle of balloons — and Katie’s final mission is to buy a birthday cake she’s sure will light up her boyfriend’s “cute fucking face.”
What’s meant to be a simple select-purchase-and-skedaddle situation segues into Katie making a series of harrowing realizations. After learning her father failed to pick up her brother Seth (Dave Franco) and his four-year-old daughter, Ella, Katie chooses to scoop the two up on her own. The problem is, Seth isn’t answering any of Katie’s phone calls — red flag number one — and when she arrives at his house, she sees that his mail has piled up — number two — and that Seth is acting like he did “last time” — number three.
Seth is a heroin addict, and Katie discovers that his missing-from-the-party-and-from-the-mailbox status means he’s relapsed.
Katie then must decide: follow through with the festivities she poured hours into and be the hostess of the most-est perfect night, or take Seth, her daffy and dismissive and in-serious-danger brother, by the hand and check him into a treatment center. She, like most anyone who has loved an addict would, chooses the latter. In that moment, 6 Balloons veers away from its initial merriment and becomes a film that’s hard to swallow as Franco’s Seth unfurls through the symptoms of withdrawal.
And that’s kind of the point: The painful, frightening parts of 6 Balloons are what make it so impactful. Ryan’s keen casting of Franco and Jacobson, paired with her resolve to juxtapose the innocence of a young child with the core chaos of a story of addiction, only enhances that weight.
Franco — who has become known (and beloved) for his ultra-dry laughter, thick eyebrows that frame the faces of all his family members (including big brother James), and ability to portray the dopey, douchey rake in comedies largely indistinguishable from one another — doesn’t simply impress in 6 Balloons, he breaks the barrier of expectations. In doing so, he breaks your heart, too.
The 32-year-old actor, standing a slightly elfin 5-foot-7, shed 25 pounds from his frame and studied, meticulously, what the loop of withdrawal and relapse does to a body. Franco admitted that he experienced depression during 6 Balloon’s shoot, and his wife, GLOW actress Alison Brie, “called him out” for his worrying disposition. “My wife Alison called me out and said you’re not yourself, you’re not fun to be around,” he revealed in a recent interview. Franco may not have gone full method (and we’re glad for it) for 6 Balloons, but the care he took in crafting Seth and the commitment he held in depicting the character’s hardships shows.
Jacobson, too, astonishes as Katie. Though stealing scenes, splitting sides, and sprinkling goofiness across the small screen is Jacobson’s speciality, here, she is as she’s never been before. The actress lends herself effortlessly to Katie’s type-A trappings, ensuring her translation never falls into the cesspool of stereotypes, and presents a fully realized character that pops three-dimensional against what could so easily be a tired dichotomy: the one battling addiction, and the one battling the addict.
Independently, Franco and Jacobson bring much to their characters — Katie is droll and even cheeky amid her personal emotional turmoil that’s echoed in the film’s self-help-styled narration; Seth is endearingly boyish and, at times, unintentionally wily — but the magic is made when the two stand opposite one another. They share a lived-in chemistry (especially impressive considering the pair only met in person just before filming 6 Balloons) that crackles moment to moment with tension and affectionate concern, then whips with hostility, turns to banter, and flips back again. For Franco, Seth is undoubtedly his first consequential dramatic turn. For Jacobson, Katie marks the beginning of what’s sure to be a solid career in drama post Broad City. And for the pair, the on-screen sibling dynamic seen in 6 Balloons is something they may never recreate.
Clocking in at a slim 74 minutes, 6 Balloons materializes as a drama on a diet. Ryan trimmed all the fat for unnecessary plot lines, extraneous conflict, and general fluff to get straight to the gut-punching point. Though that just-the-facts-ma’am approach makes for an end product that feels not so much underdone as it does befitting of further exploration — more Katie and Seth car scenes, please — there’s something to be said about how many things 6 Balloons can make you feel in so little time.
6 Balloons is moody and moving, yet frustrating and clumsy and sometimes too on-the-nose. It exists in the scarcely occupied space between a full-fledged feature and a character piece, but manages to share a stinging story without overstaying its welcome there. Above all, 6 Balloons reminds us, largely in a singular moment, of the horrors of addiction and the notion that love just might be the hardest drug to quit.