“4/4 Stars. I love " Ballast," and I want to be careful not to oversell writer-director Lance Hammer's achievement or mischaracterize this gentle, patient picture's qualities. A couple of the dramatic scenes don't come offâ€”they are a little blunt in the writing, a little soft in the acting. The rhythm and emotional landscape may not be grabby enough for some people. The world, and the film world, is pretty shrill these days, and this portrait in space and silences (and, when it's needed most, communication) resists competing with the noise.
But on a second viewing, "Ballast" strikes me as one of the few American pictures of 2008 to say what it wants to say, visually and narratively, about a specific situation and part of the country, in a way that transcends regional specifics. It makes the Mississippi Delta in wintertime look familiar and foreign, forlorn as well as consoling. On the worldwide festival circuit, Hammer's debut feature, now at the Music Box after an appearance at the Chicago International Film Festival, has found an audience. When I saw it nine months ago at Sundance I heard a lot of praise, but most of it was couched in the Sundance-speak of commercial considerations. "How's it compare to 'Little Miss Sunshine'?" Weird question, but I heard variations on it, over and over. The answer is, there's no comparison.
"Ballast" opens with an image of a young boy running across a hard cotton field in the wintertime, toward an enormous flock of birds. The boy is 12-year-old James, and he is at a crossroad, having fallen in with a rough crowd. His future is precarious, and the same goes for the other major characters: In this socioeconomic world, the line between "making it" and not is as elusive as drifting snow.
The story is set into motion by a suicide. The dead man was James' father, long estranged from single mother Marlee. It's their son we see chasing after the birds in the opening sequence. Who, exactly, is Lawrence, the man saddled with grief in the opening sequences? Hammer fills us in on his own timetable. Gradually we learn more about how each character relates to the others, and how they respond to tough, backbreaking emotional circumstances. James needs money to get a group of drug dealers off his back. At gunpoint he holds up Lawrence, more than once, yet the scenes don't play out the way you expect.
The writer-director, who has worked in art direction and design in Hollywood, is clearly under the influence of the Dogma filmmaking tradition in his use of available light and hand-held cameras, along with a lack of conventional musical score. There's a recognizable link to other filmmakers as well, among them the Dardenne brothers ("L'Enfant," "The Silence of Lorna") and Charles Burnett, whose masterwork "Killer of Sheep" brought a similar touch of the poet to matters of harsh circumstance. But "Ballast" wears these influences lightly.
The key actors in this tightly confined ensemble are new to acting in any medium. As Lawrence, Micheal J. Smith Sr. uses his lulling voice and forlorn presence to establish an inner life for a largely non-verbal man, down but not out. Tarra Riggs (Marlee) goes in for starker contrasts between her early scenes, where she offers her straying son a safe harbor, and her later explosions, after she learns firsthand what sort of pressures young James, well and truly played by JimMyron Ross, faces while she's at work and he's on his own.
Hammer and cinematographer Lol Crawley shot "Ballast" on 35 mm in the Mississippi Delta, mostly under cloud cover, so that the colors and the mood create a state of suspended longing. The crunch of the footsteps on the cold ground, the propane tanks out behind the trailer homes, the way Hammer's script takes time to lay out the ins and outs of what it takes to run Lawrence's convenience storeâ€”everything has its place in this small, sure wonder.”
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