The new movie 6 Balloons lets us peek into the life of a woman whose brother is addicted to opiates. Katie (played by Abbi Jacobson) is setting up for a surprise party with her family and friends, but is interrupted when she goes to pick up her brother, Seth (played by Dave Franco), and realizes he has been using again. Over the course of an evening, Katie drives around Los Angeles with Seth and his young daughter, Ella, in search of an opiate detox center, all while dodging phone calls and texts from their concerned family.
Jacobson’s performance was nothing short of stunning. At the very beginning of the film, I admittedly had trouble separating Abbi Jacobson from Abbi Abrams, her fictional character on Broad City. But as the climax escalated, as her brother began experiencing the excruciating symptoms of withdrawal, the desperation and responsibility she felt for her brother’s survival were palpable. Jacobson’s dialogue was limited, but through the quickening of her breath, the subtle yet conscious ignoring of texts from her family, she demonstrated to the viewer just how much Seth’s addiction rips her away from her own life.
6 Balloons is a grand departure from the opiate addiction narrative that I grew up with. A&E’s Intervention was playing at all times in my childhood home—my father insisted it was there to teach me and my sister a lesson. From Intervention, I learned that drug addiction happens like this: a person experiences childhood trauma, turns to drugs as a coping mechanism, becomes addicted, is alienated by their community, and then their family has an intervention and they go to rehab and live happily ever after or die of an overdose.
Director Marja-Lewis Ryan’s portrayal of one person’s opiate addiction and the effect it has on his sister leaves a lot of that out. Ryan doesn’t give a reason for Seth’s addiction, and she doesn’t necessarily ask the viewer to feel sorry for him. She simply retells a fragment of his story exactly how it is, without pretense or closure. When we talk about addiction in pop culture, it’s just that: one nebulous, frown-eliciting word. But Ryan deliberately goes against this narrative, and she leaves no raw detail of the night out. In a particularly disturbing scene, Katie, Seth and Ella go into a pharmacy to purchase needles so Seth can alleviate his withdrawal. There’s a five-minute interaction with a cold, disapproving pharmacist and a judgmental customer before the three of them enter the restroom. Katie changes Ella’s diaper, which has clearly been left on her for far too long, as Seth drags himself into the dirty bathroom stall and uses toilet water to fill the syringe.
Ryan shows us how Seth’s addiction is perceived by other people—with the concerned but ashamed parents, the child who is unaware but can grasp his pain, the family friends who tiptoe around the subject, the sister who can’t let go of her hopeless brother—but just barely breaches the surface of each one. At 74 minutes, that’s understandable, but it wasn’t enough to solidify my understanding of how much Katie’s life has been impacted by her brother’s addiction. I was still left feeling unsure of how Katie’s relationships with her parents, with her friends, and with her boyfriend have changed because of her position as an enabler to Seth.
6 Balloons is worth the watch for anyone interested in seeing a different kind of drug addiction narrative, and of course, for Broad City fans excited to see Abbi Jacobson in a new light. (4/5)
top photo: Netflix
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Elizabeth F. Olson is an editorial intern at BUST. She mostly writes about her experience with mental illness through a feminist lens, and sometimes she writes fiction. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.