“Sundance Day 4: The sweetest things
There are only so many games you can play and mock ceremonies you can stage with your condomates to pass the time between mediocre competition entries before you crave something of real cinematic substance. (Having said that, I would hereby like to give the annual Parker Posey Ubiquity Award to Melonie Diaz, who has a whopping four movies in this yearâ€™s festival. Sorry, Maria Bello, she beat you by one film; better luck next year.) I can always count on a pair constants in my Sundance experience. One is that Iâ€™ll find myself faced with two filmsâ€”say, a documentary about a year in the life of a typical teenager or a dark comedy from a well-known screenwriter about a young Middle Eastern girl stuck in the suburbs of Texasâ€”and Iâ€™ll think, Hmmâ€¦the second film sounds like the better bet. Then you spend two hours checking your watch while suffering through misanthropy that carbon-dates to somewhere around the mid-â€™90s, only to hear later that day that the teen doc is the best thing everyone has seen and good luck trying to get tickets for it now. This happens every year! You come to realize that there are really two Sundances going on simultaneously: the one made up of films you see and the one made up of films you miss. And the latter always seems to be the better bet, in that grass-is-greener way.
The second constant is that, right when Iâ€™m on the cusp of giving up on seeing anything of worth or value in this snowy facsimile of Los Angeles, salvation arrives unexpectedly. And thank Redford, it has finally happened. Twice. The word had been slowly building on Ballast for a few days; it hadnâ€™t really been on my radar, but I was hearing the phrase "a Southern Dardenne brothers film " so often that missing one of the remaining screenings was no longer an option. Everybody from critics to regular joes would widen their eyes and grin whenever I asked if theyâ€™d seen it. Sure enough, itâ€™s a stunning piece of work that feels like something from the old, weird Sundance you hear Park City veterans rhapsodize about in the wee small hours. And yes, Lance Hammerâ€™s directorial debut does owe a debt to the work of Belgiumâ€™s No. 1 sibling filmmakersâ€”when you follow a cast of nonprofessional actors around with shaky cameras poised right behind their shoulders, the comparison is inevitableâ€”as well as to David Gordon Greenâ€™s George Washington. But the film never feels like mere artistic karaoke. The most amazing thing about Ballast is that Hammerâ€™s voice seems to have emerged fully-formed.
Set near the mouth of the Mississippi Delta, the movie introduces its central trio of characters with a complete lack of context. A preteen boy (JimMyron Ross) tramps through a field, watching as a flock of birds take flight. His mother (Tarra Riggs) cleans toilets in an unnamed building, a nonentity to the rich people for whom she works. A hulking, near-catatonic man (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) keeps vigil over his dead twin brother; when a neighbor discovers the deceased, the grieving gent shoots himself in the chest. Slowly but surely, we get to see how these three protagonists are connected, as well as how crack dealers, a convenience store and an omnipresent loaded gun play into the "plot," for lack of a better word. Narrative momentum takes a backseat to a mood of poetic ruralism, yet this atmospheric, abstract slice of life paints a distinct portrait of people living below the Mason-Dixon (and poverty) line. Hammer, oddly, served as the art director on not one but two big-budget Batman movies, while producer Andrew Adamson was the man behind Disneyâ€™s blockbuster Chronicles of Narnia; my friend James from Cinematical joked that the two of them were serving penance. True, Ballast is the antithesis of a typical Hollywood movie (and the faux-Hollywood movies that have been paraded in Park City in the name of big deals and/or indie cred). More important, this lo-fi parable of desperate, grieving people picking up the pieces of their lives introduces a genuine new talent. Should it win in competition, the outsider drama would make a great reminder of why this fest was founded in the first place.
Iâ€™d assumed that Ballast would be the only film Iâ€™d have seen here that would leave me reeling, and was content that Iâ€™d go home with one true discovery worthy of bend-over-backward praise. Until Ryan Fleck and Anna Bodenâ€™s Sugar screened for the pressâ€¦and then there were two. Fans of Half Nelson can attest that the Brooklyn-based filmmaking team is capable of locating the humanistic pulse within warhorse material, and their latest does for sports flicks what the previous movie did for inspiring-teacher tales. Following the ascension of a Dominican Republican pitcher nicknamed "Sugar" (Algenis Perez Soto) as heâ€™s scouted for a professional A-league team in Iowa, this funny, affectionate look at one immigrantâ€™s immersion in the American Dream never hits a single false note. Soto, a nonprofessional actor that Fleck and Boden discovered in the Dominican Republic, portrays Sugarâ€™s confusion, elation and frustration with the opportunity heâ€™s been given, and the directorsâ€™ ability to evoke a larger social picture without getting on the soapbox fits the story like a catcherâ€™s mitt. (A shot of the rookie looking at a T-shirt bearing a "Made in the DR" label speaks volumes without saying a word.) Even when the movie takes a highly unexpected turn in the third act, the sense that youâ€™re watching something real and organic unfold never leaves you. The clash between American culture and its large diaspora population has hardly ever been laid out with such warmth and grace. Surprisingly, no distributorâ€™s have come a-callinâ€™ yet. What the hell are they waiting for?
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