“There isnâ€™t much talk and not a drop of cynicism in â€œBallast,â€ Lance Hammerâ€™s austerely elegant, emotionally unadorned riff on life and death in the Mississippi Delta. Shot with a sure hand and a cast of unknowns, the film doesnâ€™t so much tell a story as develop a tone and root around a place that, despite the intimate camerawork, remains shrouded in ambiguity. Mr. Hammer puts in the time, but never asserts that he knows this world and his black characters from the inside out, a wise choice for a white boy playing the blues.Taken on its own, â€œBallast,â€ which has been making the international festival rounds with great success since its premiere at Sundance in January, offers plenty to chew on. Shot on 35-millimeter film by the British cinematographer Lol Crawley, it opens with a hand-held camera trailing after a boy of around 12, James (JimMyron Ross), looking and then walking toward â€” and soon running at â€” hundreds, thousands, of geese noisily taking flight into the blue winter sky. The boy doesnâ€™t say a word as he watches this screeching mass, yet a feeling of loneliness, thick as a winter coat and every bit as palpable as those darkly swirling birds (surging like storm clouds, like waves), settles around him.
More moody skies follow, interspersed with words that, with few exceptions, sound as unrehearsed as life. Through a series of short, elliptical scenes, fragments of beauty caught as if on the fly, you learn that James lives in a cramped trailer with his single, hard-working mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), though mostly what he does is drift. Visibly bored, seemingly friendless, he putt-putts across his unnamed township on a small motorbike and sniffs around the local bad element, adolescent thugs offering perilous companionship and crack cocaine. Despite all this drifting, the film remains grounded, tethered to a great mass of humanity named Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), who increasingly fills the screen and gives this exceptionally fine feature debut both its title and heart.
Mr. Hammer developed â€œBallastâ€ with his mostly untrained actors over several months of rehearsal. Although the results generally look and sound more authentic, more real (whatever that means!) than even most American independent fare, the film nevertheless ebbs and flows like fiction. It builds on a series of incidents â€” a suicide, an attempted suicide, some bloody hooliganism and a misfired gun â€” any one of which would have given most of us enough excitement (and barroom anecdotes) to last a lifetime. Itâ€™s the kind of dramatic pileup that bodes ill in many films, but here feels natural as air largely because Mr. Hammerâ€™s visual style â€” at once spare and detailed, restless and anchored by a classic sense of film space â€” tempers the story and keeps it from boiling over.
This visual style owes a strong, self-conscious debt to the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who, over the last dozen years, have shaken up the world cinema scene with their grave, beautiful, urgent films, including â€œRosetta,â€ â€œThe Sonâ€ and â€œLâ€™Enfant,â€ about the everyday struggles of ordinary people. Though Mr. Hammer is clearly taking cues from the Dardennes, among the most influential filmmakers working today, his movie is the latest in a tradition of homegrown realism rooted in Italian neorealism and nurtured by avant-garde cinema and documentary traditions. Before there was â€œBallast,â€ there was â€œThe Cool World,â€ Shirley Clarkeâ€™s still-vibrant 1963 drama about black gangs in Harlem, and â€œKiller of Sheep,â€ Charles Burnettâ€™s 1977 masterpiece about a poor black Los Angeles family.
â€œBallastâ€ doesnâ€™t need to reach the sublime heights of â€œKiller of Sheepâ€ to earn its rightful due: itâ€™s a serious achievement and a welcome sign of a newly invigorated American independent cinema. Mr. Hammer, a Southern California native whose background studying architecture is evident in his graceful compositions and sensitivity toward forms â€” Lawrenceâ€™s body at times looms larger than his tiny house â€” hovers near his characters without ever piercing their skin. He doesnâ€™t draw blood, but he does do something so many movies forget: he captures the rhythms of life. Using caressing natural light, he watches and waits as Lawrence smokes another cigarette and James circles this big man like a puppy. He follows Marlee across the yard and James across the field. He catches their footfalls, the sounds of their breath.”
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