Review: Balloon Animal at Manchester Film Festival

As a child I used to marvel at the concept and sheer artistry of those who could transform balloon into beast (ridiculous but alliteration, I can’t not).

Even more so when I tried to do it myself not realising that a special type of balloon can only be used, and concluding that only those touched by magic can perform such activity.

Showing as part of this year’s Manchester Film Festival, Balloon Animal is a brilliant name for a film. It suggests a metaphor, a hidden meaning, a deep dive into the psyche of a named character.

I mean I’m sure we can make that happen but what I love is that producer and lead actor, Katherine Waddell, had this artistic vision of a blue haired girl making a balloon animal. Literally just that. And it all came from there. As someone who always used to draw people with blue hair when she was little, I’m all for that.

Katherine is a co-founder of First Bloom Films along with award-winning writer and director Em Johnson.

The two friends came together to make what I thought was a charmingly brilliant film, in only 12 days.

The tagline of the film is “A young circus performer (Poppy played Katherine Waddell), stuck under the harsh rules of her father (Dark played by Ilia Volok)and community expectations, finds herself captivated by small-town America, forcing her to question everything.”

I prepared myself for an abusive father, dark themes, trouble abound in the big tent but it was more…gentle. Calm, even. I think I watch too much American Horror Story (fun fact, a lot of the circus scenery and props was provided by the same company who supplied them for AHS Freak Show).

The breakfast scene as they both navigate the bitter grapefruit served up by Dark is funny and touching and, revealed by Em, Katherine and Ilia at the post-screening Q&A, largely ad-libbed.

We join the pair as another circus season draws to a close, and discussions ensue as to where the next stop should be. Meanwhile Poppy persuades fellow circus performers and friends, Lala (Danielle Baez) and Sadie (Erin Rae Li), to head out one night to see what the small town has to offer in terms of nightlife. The answer is not a great deal but they find fun (and alcohol) in a local bar and fast food in the diner afterwards. It is there that Poppy runs into local, Drew ( Michael David Wilson) who she previously encountered on a petrol forecourt.

Meeting Drew has clearly awakened something in her and she is keen to go when he invites the three to a gathering at his home later that week.

I have to say, the scenes with the three girls were some of my favourite. Funny, sharp dialogue portraying a genuine friendship and shared understanding of the trials and tribulations of circus life, the group’s dialogue and interactions lit up the screen.

Similarly, there is a tenderness in the two-hander scenes between Poppy and Drew and not to give the game away, any tension that she is walking into a trap is quickly tempered.

Treated to thoughts from Katherine and Em after the screening, they talked about what I thought was a wonderful and charming cinematographic approach where the traditional (and expected) aesthetic is turned on its head. Opening scenes aside, the circus is often shot with muted colours and lighting, whereas Poppy’s interactions in the ‘outside world’ are colourful and bold. Her circus life coming with a constant backdrop of music, bright lights and magic, Poppy sees this more in the seemingly ordinary and to some, mundane. The film’s strength lies in that empathy with the character is strong and the film-goer starts to quickly see life through their lens.

And it would be easy for there to be this big, bad situation in the protagonist’s life to bring the viewer right on board, triggering us all into rooting for our ‘hero’. This story is more subtle, layered. We don’t require big, brash themes and dramatic story arcs to understand this character’s wants and needs.

Freedom is a subjective concept, happiness can be induced by many and varied external factors. For some it’s bright lights and make-up. For others it’s a motel room with a working television and a side of independence and adventure.

In summary, if the lead actress of a film has a balloon-animal making hand double, you make a point of watching that film. It’s only right.

But also because it’s captivating and deserves to be seen.

For details of future screenings, follow the film on Instagram.

And here’s a little amuse bouche of a trailer for you Balloon Animal.

You can read more about the film here on the official website for Manchester Film Festival.

Katherine Waddell was also named Best Actress in the end of festival’s awards. Huge congrats to Katherine!


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