Writer/director Lance Hammer’s debut feature Ballast is one of those loosely plotted films that reveal themselves slowly and almost obliquely. Who the characters are and how they’re related comes across subtly and the story seems to manifest itself almost out of nothing. As such, it would be robbing the film of some of its pleasure to reveal too many details about the workings of its plot. It’s almost enough to say simply that it begins with a tragedy that leads to the formation of a reluctant family of three people eking out an existence in poverty stunted landscape of the Mississippi Delta.

Lawrence and Marlee are a brother and sister-in-law driven apart by a complicated history but drawn together by Marlee’s young son James. He’s a boy adrift, impatient to make some mark on the world around him for better or for worse. We first meet him in the wordless opening scene where he runs out into a wintry field to disturb a flock of birds that have gathered there only to be taken aback by the noisy, swirling black mass he stirs up. James is full of ill focused, unarticulated rage with no outlet and he’s not yet equipped to handle the consequences of his actions.

For his part, Lawrence is almost numb. Following the suicide of his brother (the boy’s father), he seems to move in slow motion, silently like a man under water. Though he’s emotionally fragile himself, his implacable calmness seems to provide a grounding influence for the restless James.

Meanwhile, James’ mother Marlee has problems of her own. She struggles to put a troubled past behind her while raising the boy on her own. Unfortunately, keeping him clothed and fed leaves her little time to provide the attention and guidance such a boy needs.

The best hope for all of them is that Marlee and Lawrence will somehow be able to put aside their pride and mistrust in the interest of joining along with James into a tentative and makeshift family unit, each one providing the other a little ballast, a little grounding influence to help them navigate their difficult lives.

The current meme in discussions about the state of Hollywood is that independent cinema is doomed, but someone forgot to tell Mr. Hammer who has chosen to self-distribute this, his debut feature. Made with a low budget on location in rural Mississippi using a local cast of mostly non-actors, Ballast is a part of a new breed of films reflecting a new American realism that could only have been made outside the Hollywood system. These films eschew easy melodrama, instead exploring the inner lives of their characters. However, unlike the films of the recent so-called mumblecore movement (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, The Pleasure of Being Robbed et al.) which reflect on the minuscule travails of a bunch of self-absorbed 20-somethings, Ballast turns its microscope on characters that may not be instantly familiar to audiences but who are nevertheless relatable. In that way, Hammer’s film is more like Ramin Bahrani’s recent Chop Shop and Man Push Cart.

Like Bahrani’s films, Ballast will certainly not appeal to all tastes. Its slow pace and loose plotting require a depth of focus not all viewers will be willing to give. It’s an almost impressionistic tone piece whose story provides the barest framework to convey a feeling or mood rather than a strong narrative. However, those who have the patience for it and who are in tune with its unique rhythms will be rewarded with a spare and haunting yet beautiful and thoughtful character drama that manages to pull an unlikely glimmer of hope from the dark depths of despair.

Ballast. USA 2008. Written, directed and edited by Lance Hammer. Cinematography by Lol Crawley. Starring Michael J. Smith Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs and Johnny McPhail. 1 hour 36 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)

9 Responses to “Review: Ballast (2008) ****”

  1. Lovely review. This sounds like an excellent movie.

    …Ballast is a part of a new breed of films reflecting a new American realism that could only have been made outside the Hollywood system.

    I hope there will be more of these films.

  2. Me too! I’m hoping to catch Sugar and a few others at AFI. In the mean time, keep an eye out for movies like Medicine for Melancholy.

  3. Ugh, sounds so amazing. Cannot. Wait. To. See. This ;)

    Really nice review man, for sure.

  4. That was one of the finest concluding sentences I have ever seen you write and kudos to you for that–it was both poetic and profound.

    I personally gravitate towards films with “impressionistic” textures and where “feelings” mean the most, and especially films “that eschew easy melodrama, instead of exploring the inner lives of their characters.” This is potent stuff, and it’s primarily why we maintain a level of excitement when going to see independent films.

    You took the words right out of my mouth with the reference to “Chop Shop.”

    This review has now put my wife Lucille is an unenviable position. As BALLAST is playing at the Film Forum (only until Tuesday, when the theatre’s arcane Wednesday schedule changes over) I am now working on her to turn this evening’s Film Forum LOLA MONTES screening into a same-building double-feature. I place the blame squarely on Craig’s review. ha! I wouldn’t mind having such future blame to attend quality films!

    Honestly and truthfully, your new shorter review concept has yielded here a beautifully-written and incisive review. It has reved me up too.

  5. Really looking forward to reading this, but I’m also really looking forward to seeing the film, so I’ll wait. Just barely glancing at it, though… Looks great!

  6. I very much want to see this. You know how I love me some Mississippi Delta movies. I’m predisposed to like it just because from the trailer alone it looks like it captures Delta rhythms and characters with honesty and accuracy. Although I’m a story girl, I recognize that story subjugated to tone and place can sometimes be very powerful in itself. I’m eager to see if it holds up. Thanks for reviewing!

  7. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Mississippi delta. I’m looking forward to seeing this. Fine piece, Craig.

  8. Good review, Craig. I think you summed up the picture fairly well without giving much away. My general thought is that this is a fllm that hangs on the realism and simplicity of the performances themselves, rather than plot, but thinking back to it there’s quite a bit of story that Hammer covers in the 90 minutes of film.

    I was a bit taken aback by Lawrence. The character is so reserved and so withdrawn that my initial interest in him grew into frustration as the film went on. James is far more engaging and interesting though and his initial relationship with Lawrence is probably one of the oddest and most unexpected series of scenes I’ve seen in a while. Marlee was the character I could identify with the most closely though. I feel like I’ve known quite a few people like her, struggling and working so hard for so little only to give their family what they can.

    Good movie, although I found the dialogue sometimes a bit difficult to hear and understand. My hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I’m fairly certain the low-budget audio recording and slight accents of the characters really got in the way. Curiously, the dialogue was so minimal that I could follow the general actions just through the performances alone. In a way, large portions of this film are almost like a silent film. Hammer shows rather than tells, which I always enjoy even when it leads to minimalist pacing, such as here in Ballast.

    Good movie.

  9. As I said elsewhere, I struggled with this one the first time through, but warmed up to it.

    I agree that a lot of plot is covered, yet Hammer’s interest lies in the mood and the characters. It seems very European in that way, but it requires a gear shift from what I’m normally used to watching.

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