AIN'T IT COOL NEWS
“When a film opens up with one suicide and one attempted suicide, it's a safe bet that said film is going to be a tad on the bleak side. But nothing quite prepared me for the soulful power of BALLAST, the feature debut from writer-director Lance Hammer, whose film is not about suicide but about the impact these actions have on those left behind. Set in the murky, gray winter of a Mississippi Delta township, the film focus on three black characters, all of who are linked to the dead man. One is his brother Lawrence, who is our suicide attempt, so overwhelmed by his brother's death and his failed attempt at joining him that he is practically struck dumb and inactive by the situation. The brothers owned a mini-mart/gas station that has remained closed for many weeks after the brother's death. We also meet 12-year-old James, a good kid whose path appears clear to us as he begins to hang out with drug dealers, dabbles in crack himself, and seems impressed by guns. When he finds out about his father's death, he visits his uncle, steals his gun, and forces the uncle to walk him through the house to see his father's possessions.
The third player in this film is James' mother Marlee, a struggling woman who is informed by a lawyer that half of the house where he husband lived and the store are hers. Her immediate reaction is to sell everything and take the cash, but when dangerous situations rise up where she and James live, she decides to take up residence with Lawrence living in a side house on the property. She and Lawrence never got along, although it seems neither knows exactly why. As much as this film is filled with misery and hard times, it is wonderful to watch the ways Hammer slowly allows his characters to fill in the large gaps in their hearts and soul, and heal each other in the process. The process is slow and painful (which does not mean the movie is either), and blessedly goes against every convention Hollywood has taught us about grief and forgiveness. This is not something that a single kind word or deed is going to heal, not even close.
Even the look of the film is rough around the edges. Hammer moves his hand-held camera through the action as if he's a fourth character in this story. Although the movie covers some of the emotional and economic ground as David Gordon Green's GEORGE WASHINGTON, the visual style of the two films could not be more different. BALLAST simply might be too heavy and raw for some, and I understand that. But if you're in the mood to or habit of discovering great new filmmakers, Lance Hammer is one I'm going to be keeping an eye on in the years to come. I hope he maintains the same emotional punch that he holds so dear in BALLAST, because films this strong are few and far between. We've had a couple this year that came close, such as FROZEN RIVER and SNOW ANGELS (notice how all of these heavy hitters take place in winter?), but in terms of naked cinematic fortitude, BALLAST is on most solid ground.
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