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)