‘6 Balloons’: Love Is A Drug For Abbi Jacobson & Dave Franco [SXSW Review]

Watching Abbi Jacobson and Dave Franco  strut their dramatic chops feels a bit odd at first, after all these are comedic actors. Jacobson known as one half of the irresponsible, stoner duo of the great “Broad City,” and Franco, well, he's cast a lot in frat-boy stuff, which is usually pretty endearing given his contagious smile et all.  

In the Netflix film, “6 Balloons,” they are dead serious in their roles. It takes some getting used to but they do sneak up on you. 

Netflix has the official synopsis:

"Over the course of one night, a woman drives across LA with her heroin addict brother in search of a detox center, with his two year old daughter in tow."

The film marks the directorial debut of Marja-Lewis Ryan, who also wrote the script. “6 Balloons” premiered at SXSW, and I reviewed it for The Playlist, here are a few excerpts from my B-/C+ review:

Heroin, even in the abstract, is harrowing. Loved ones as junkies and their slow, painful demise is a nightmarish scenario. This is the premise of  Marja-Lewis Ryan’s SXSW feature-length directorial debut  “6 Balloons,” a sobering, no-frills indie drama featuring two actors known for their stellar comedy work in roles that are utterly serious and cast against type. Premiering next month on Netflix, but debuting in Austin this week, “6 Balloons” features a sister (Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City” really stretching her chops) desperately trying to help her self-destructive heroin-addicted brother (Dave Franco) enter rehab and clean himself up for good. How much emotional damage can you endure before making the painful decision to sever ties with someone you love? How can you save someone who can’t help themselves? Those are the questions asked in”6 Balloons,” a sometimes didactic, but always anxiety-inducing film. Shot in a near-claustrophobic handheld style, Ryan’s film is a hell and back 24-hour journey across L.A. that is sometimes too hard to watch.

On the eve of a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend,  Katie’s (Jacobson) life is once again sideswiped by family. It’s not her mom (Jane Kaczmarek) and dad (Tim Matheson), helpful in setting the party up, that are the problem, but Seth (Franco), her trainwreck of a brother. Living life in a constant state of worry, Katie suffers while watching her brother swing between sobriety and relapse. Worse, Seth somehow has to care for his 4-year-old daughter on weekends which makes Katie’s constant state of unease all the more wrenching. The child (alternately played by twins Charlotte and Madeline Carel) is caught in the crossfires of a helpless, disoriented, and, quite frankly, dangerous person.

Mostly known as an actor in lightweight frat-house comedies, Franco lost a significant amount of weight for the movie and his obvious investment in the role is like nothing we’ve ever seen on screen from the actor. Like his agitated character, he changes moods and bodily mannerisms in the blink of an eye in convincing fashion. Jacobson also steps far outside her comfort zone for the part, but she nails this challenge. Katie’s emotional hardship is thankfully never expounded upon in dialogue, instead communicated through an admirably internalized performance. She keeps everything bottled up and it’s through a skillful body language that Jacobson not only communicates all the character’s alarm and pain but proves she’s got far more depth beyond her Comedy Central show. A dramatic future wouldn’t be out of the question.

As striking as some of these performances are, “6 Balloons” is not without its problems. At a barebones 74 minute running time that doesn’t dive into the emotional texture as much as it could, “6 Balloons” at times, feels slight.  Some of the self-soothing narrative tropes don’t work either, such as when Katie finds the time to listen to self-help audio in the car. This easy contrivance feels too on the nose. There’s also the sneaking feeling, as you watch her give in to her brother, that she is an inadvertent enabler of his behavior. The movie hints that she’s given him too many passes over the years, her parents have disowned him, and that this isn’t the first time she’s had to “rescue” bro. The concessions she makes for Seth tend to aggravate the viewer rather than deliver any kind of sympathy for the characters.

Nevertheless, the no-bull, minimalist approach employed by this first time director makes for a distressing, sometimes excruciating, experience. A writer/actor turned director (known for the LGBTQ drama “The Four-Faced Liar“), Ryan clearly has talent, though perhaps it’s not quite fully formed. She’s been tapped to write a “Splash” reboot starring Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell and drafted to spearhead the sequel to “The L Word,” as a showrunner, but “6 Balloons” doesn’t quite live up to the promise that all this exciting, upcoming work suggests. The film may not always work because of its slightness, but at the very least it will leave you shaken as a sobering argument against ever fucking around with hard drugs. 

Netflix on April 6. Watch the trailer below.