“"Ballast" has the heft and substance its name implies. A double prize winner at Sundance, this austere, rigorous film has a sense of place, a feeling for reality so compelling it makes us feel like we're living it, not just watching on a screen.
Set amid the poverty and spaciousness of the Mississippi Delta's black community, "Ballast" is a quintessentially American story that unmistakably echoes European art house cinema, combining the aesthetic purity of France's Robert Bresson with the social consciousness of Belgium's Dardenne brothers. It also is a powerful, character-driven melodrama that easily holds our attention from first to last.
That success is due to writer-director Lance Hammer, a former art director and first-time filmmaker, who not only took the directing award at Sundance but also guided his largely nonprofessional cast through a rehearsal process in which they worked on developing their characters and their lines.
Confident of its qualities, "Ballast" drops us into the middle of its story without dotting all the I's or crossing the Ts. We find out the connections and back stories of its people only gradually, after the atmosphere of this impoverished corner of the Delta has sunk into our bones.
Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), a large, soft-spoken man, is at the lowest point of his existence. His twin has just taken his life and the shock and the circumstance combine to make Lawrence uncertain as to whether he wants to continue with his own life or not.
Marlee (Tarra Riggs), by contrast, is a single mother whose exhausting menial job doesn't leave her the time to be depressed. She does, however, worry about her 12-year-old son James (JimMyron Ross), and with reason.
Though James is undemonstrative and not much of a talker, we see his increasing fascination with the older, macho drug-dealing teens in the area. He also demonstrates a hostile familiarity with Lawrence, though it's not immediately clear why.
As it turns out, that suicide combines with other factors to bring "Ballast's" trio of protagonists into closer proximity with one another, a circumstance that makes no one happy.
For the disassociated Lawrence, the aggrieved Marlee and the boy at a turning point all turn out to be part of a complex and tangled web of personal relationships and unresolved issues. With elements of what's gone before both connecting them and driving them apart, each of these three has to decide what of the past they can bury to make room for the tenuous possibilities of the future.
Hammer turns out to be an especially confident filmmaker with a real sense of what he wants to convey and how to convey it. He's especially good at infusing urgency and dramatic tension into a somber film that moves by choice at a very deliberate pace.
He's also helped greatly by director of photography Lol Crawley, who shot almost the entire film handheld with available light in widescreen 35-mm format.
Crawley's camerawork captures both the beauty and spaciousness of the physical world -- "Ballast's" opening shot is especially memorable -- as well as bleak, closed- in living spaces. It's almost as if those wide spaces mock the characters' blighted interior lives, challenging them to do better. If they can.”
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