Uplifting and unexpected, The Black Balloon, writer-director Elissa Down’s touching semi-autobiographical film, centers around Thomas (19-year-old Rhys Wakefield in a remarkable performance) as he tries to fit into to his family’s new home. Desperate to assimilate and win the affections of Jackie (Gemma Ward), Thomas has to grapple with his pregnant mother (the imminently watchable Toni Collette), a father who likes to consult with his teddy bear, Rex (Erik Thomson), and his severely autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford).

Ward manages to sidestep most model-turned-actor clichés and delivers a performance that is both ethereal and stirring, while Ford, who some may remember from this summer’s Mummy sequel, gives the most convincing portrayal of a profoundly handicapped child since Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a film that shares many parallels with Balloon and deserves similar praise.

Grade: B+

The Black Balloon releases in select theaters Dec. 5.