BALLOON ANIMAL – Review by Rachel West

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When you think of films set in a travelling circus, classics like Freaks, Nightmare Alley or Pinocchio might come to mind with their dark look at life under the big top. But in Em Johnson’s Balloon Animal, circus life gets a fresh and sweet take as it serves as the backdrop for a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

Aqua-haired Poppy Valentine (Katherine Waddell) spends her days making balloon animals at her father Dark’s (Ilia Volok) circus. Together, the pair live and work side-by-side performing old-fashioned magic tricks to increasingly dwindling audiences. Poppy knows that in order for their circus to survive, great changes must be made but her single dad is set in his ways. Having been abandoned by his wife and Poppy’s mother years ago, Dark is resentful and has become increasingly possessive of his daughter as she begins to think about a life outside the circus. In order to keep her close, Dark offers Poppy the job of assistant manager, a role that she knows would never allow her to pursue her own life.

But what else is there beyond the circus for Poppy? On the crux of a big change, Poppy must realize that her life is her decision, with or without her father’s circus.

Written by Johnson, Balloon Animal’s plot is straightforward without much embellishment. Centred on Waddell who is mesmerizing as Poppy, the story is one that remains open-ended giving lots of room for viewers to come to their own conclusions while illustrating that Poppy is the master of her own journey – no matter what path she takes. Waddell is a natural on-screen and the actress seems destined for stardom. Together with Volok, the two have an indelible chemistry as father-daughter in the film. The simple nature of the setting and lack of distractions only heightens their scenes together.

For a film set in a circus, there are surprisingly few flourishes that one might expect. Certainly due to budget limitations, not much of Balloon Animal is actually set under the big top. Instead, scenes play out in the Valentine’s trailer, outdoors or in a diner. The circus setting may be unique but really feels secondary to the story as so little of it takes place there. Balloon Animal’s theme of breaking free from parental expectations is so universally familiar that the circus setting only serves as a quirky side note. Aside from the opening scene and another in which the circus is vandalized, little of Poppy’s day-to-day life as a circus performer is explored. Nevertheless, this simple story is one that is never boring or laborious with well-defined characters and performances.

As Johnson’s second narrative feature, Balloon Animal is strong, pointing toward a fruitful career as a writer and director. It will be interesting to see what this filmmaker does next.

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Rachel West

Based in Toronto, Rachel is a Senior Film Critic at She has interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events, and has contributed film writing and content to outlets including ET Canada, Telefilm, Global News, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, and Letterboxd, among others. She is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here