By Jeremy Merrifield | Drama
A bullied teen discovers he has superpowers.

Sam is a quiet, withdrawn boy just trying to make it through junior high, navigating bullies, active-shooter drills and a general sense of not fitting in.

He is bullied mercilessly by his peers, particularly one that relishes leveling homophobic slurs at him. Sam’s family at home seems disconnected and only mildly concerned, and his one friend at school ghosts him after one particularly humiliating experience.

But then Sam develops strange superpowers of strength and flight, which he tentatively explores and embraces in secret. Soon these powers give Sam the ability to fight back — and the chance to put an end to his bullying altogether.

Writer/director Jeremy Merrifield, along with co-writer Dave Testa, has created a thoughtful, gently meditative riff on the superhero genre. But instead of adopting the tropes of the fantasy superhero story, its uses a careful, considered craftsmanship and an exquisite sensitivity to character and emotion in its writing and storytelling to interrogate what it means to be a boy and a man, as well as what it truly means to wield power, with all its thorny real-life moral complexity.

The story, in a nutshell, is the basic skeleton of almost any superhero origin story: a young kid discovers their powers, which often translates into a journey personal empowerment and identity. But the short is not shot in a typical genre way, with near-operatic emotional highs, acrobatic camerawork, elaborate VFX and a dash of sarcastic quips for humor here and there. Instead, the visuals stay carefully observational, almost with a documentary’s sense of presence. The camera and editing are interested in silence and silencing — in what’s unsaid and what’s held back, and in how aggression and bullying create erasure.

There are moments where Sam’s powers emerge in the story, but the approach, like the rest of the visuals of the film, is grounded, even muted, in feel and execution. Sam can fly and exert an intense amount of strength and force, and while those moments punctuate the narrative with surprise and even a sense of marvel and rhapsody, the craftsmanship never gets carried away with them.

Instead, the focus is firmly on Sam as a fully realized, complex character, brought to life by actor Jonah Beres with great precision, restraint and sensitivity. He endows Sam with a wide emotional range, with both tremendous vulnerability, a compelling inner stillness and a growing wonderment and sense of power as he realizes what he can do. This enables Sam to finally be able to confront his most vicious bully, once and for all.

Longlisted as a contender for the Oscars’ live-action short category and nominated for a Student Academy Award, “Balloon” ends on an elegant grace note that takes the cinematic language of superhero stories and turns it into a poetic moment of transcendence and equilibrium. Able to balance these character moments with genre tropes — as well as deftly capturing the textures and rhythms of a modern school, with all its anxieties and aggression — the film intelligently explores power and how it’s gained and exerted, whether it’s through pure aggression or through more subtle means.

It also makes the case that the ultimate superpower may not be brute strength or the ability to fly. Instead, true power may be the moral compass and consideration that knows how and when to wield strength in the first place, and the emotional receptivity that hones this compass in the first place.

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