"You are walking down a dock...there's a boat at the end of this dock...you get in the boat..."
We're welcomed to 6 Balloons by the near robotic voice of a self-help tape, its droning intonation acting as a Greek Chorus for the duration of playwright-cum-writer/director Marja-Lewis Ryan's feature debut. For Katie (Abbi Jacobson), the single day that Ryan's picture transpires on is supposed to be a joyous one, as she's throwing a surprise birthday party for her boyfriend Jack (Dawan Owens). Sure, her mom (Jane Kaczmarek) lords over every element of the event, and only seems capable of backhanded compliments, while her dad (Tim Matheson) drinks giant glasses of white wine instead of helping get anything in order. But it's fine; Katie can handle these seemingly innumerable tasks, including picking up her brother, who may or may not have relapsed on heroin.
"...but you never notice that the boat is rotting..."
Seth (Dave Franco) hasn't answered his mail in weeks. That's the first sign that tips Katie off to the fact that he's begun using again. He did this last time, and despite the fact that his little girl is now living with him, Katie's baby brother has gotten so bad that he's fidgeting and sweating in her car during the entire trip. She can't take him back to the party looking like this. Seth's got to go to rehab. The kid can't even put up a solid protest against his sister taking him to the nearest facility, so now a trip to get a cake for Jack's party transforms into a frantic dash across town, as Seth seems to get worse by the second. In turn, 6 Balloons becomes a ticking clock picture, tense and uncomfortable, as this good person tries to save the drug addicted black sheep of her family.
"...and you can't drive this boat."
Abbi Jacobson is simply terrific as the good-natured sibling, who – through the short hand she shares with Seth – we realize has spent her entire life covering up for this egregious fuck up of a human being. As Ryan keeps cutting back to the party – Katie's many guests wondering just where the hell their host disappeared to – we quickly figure out that this isn't the first life event that caring for her diseased kin has cost her. As soon as Seth's name is even casually mentioned in front of their parents, her mom gets upset, while Katie's dad attempts to calm his wife. "It's OK. It's not as bad as we probably think," his eyes say, acting just as much as an enabler as Katie is by driving the junkie all around LA, after the first facility refuses to take Seth's insurance. But Jacobson lends Katie a collected cool that's truly heartbreaking; she's become a professional at these sorts of awful missions (and we even wonder if Seth has done his fair share of covering for his big sis in the past).
"You're drowning now...and you've hit bottom..."
The goofy, trademark grin is gone from Dave Franco's face, replaced by a constant grimace and agonized intensity as Seth. Though Jacobson’s spectacular, Franco almost makes you forget his movie star lineage entirely, as he uses his whole body to convey the painful realities of addiction. It's all very showy stuff, but we buy the young actor's commitment, especially by the time Seth's convincing his sister to take him on a drug run down the darkest alleys of town, just so he doesn't lose his facilities completely in her car. Did you ever think you'd see Dave Franco stumble out of a vehicle and shit himself? Me neither. Yet all the casual debasement that goes into being a hardcore drug user is present and accounted for, Franco proving he’s game for some utterly grotesque truths.
"...but this isn't the first boat you've been on, and you'll walk down other piers..."
Though the narrative is rather simplistic – a "day in the life" approach that just keeps getting darker and darker with each passing hour – Ryan applies a world’s worth of style to what could've been a rather pedestrian tale. Cinematographer Polly Morgan (Legion) brings a lovely eye to the proceedings, capturing all the light and texture the city of Los Angeles has to offer; moving us from the safety of Katie's suburban home to its nastiest back alleys, which are inhabited by zombified users and dealers who pull the titular heroin doses from their upper lips. Editor Brian Scofield cuts 6 Balloons together with the propulsive forward motion of an action picture, never letting us catch our breath, as Heather McIntosh layers on an OST comprised of heartstring-tugging ambient piano lines. For a first feature that’s stripped to near elemental essentials, narratively speaking, there’s a hell of a lot of technical bravura on display.
"...but you have to remember: you do not need to board this boat."
Though Katie's arc becomes fairly predictable by the last of 6 Balloons' breathless 74 minutes, the transparency of her character's development doesn't render it any less powerful. Anyone who's ever known or been an addict themselves will recognize those individuals' keepers. Katie is a caretaker, a woman who's loved and tried to see the best in her brother throughout her entire life, despite the fact that he's never provided any solid evidence of or desire to change his horrible, life-consuming ways. By the end of Ryan's remarkable, deeply personal debut, we know that Katie has a choice to make: continue caring for this poisoned man, or walk away and finally let him fend for himself. The only question is: will she keep taking that same boat out to sea?
6 Balloons is available now on Netflix.