“Micheal J. Smith Sr., the central figure in Lance Hammer's Ballast, has never acted before, but his hulking frame and lumbering gait convey his character's withdrawal from the world. After his twin brother kills himself, Lawrence (Smith) can't even bring himself to leave his tiny house, situated on a small plot of land in the Mississippi Delta. With his brother's body bleeding into the bedsheets in the back bedroom, Lawrence keeps outsiders at bay, eventually using the gun with which his brother killed himself to put a hole in his own chest.
Lawrence survives with the help of surgery that uses tissue from one lung to heal the hole in the other, one of many instances in Hammer's film in which injuries are healed by another's sacrifice. Shot in glimmery handheld widescreen by Lol Crawley, Ballast is filled with freighted symbols, like the matching houses belonging to Lawrence and his late brother, but Hammer deploys them without comment or self-consciousness. They're built into the fabric of the movie, not pasted onto its surface.
As a white director working with a largely African-American and entirely nonprofessional cast, Hammer runs the risk of the kind of aesthetic condescension that mars David Gordon Green's George Washington, but his collaborative methods give the scenes a lived-in feel. Although Hammer is credited with the screenplay, the movie had no script per se. Hammer built the film from scratch with his actors over a period of months, keeping key plot points from them until it was time to shoot so their reactions would be unstudied and natural. Hammer doesn't need to telegraph his realism with grainy film stock and shaky camera; the movie's authenticity is genuine, and not a special effect.
Lawrence is joined in his torpor by 12-year-old James (JimMyron Ross), a rootless boy on the verge of turning into a teenage thug, and James' mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), a recovering drug addict trying to keep them both afloat with her menial paychecks. The three meet at the bottom, but Hammer isn't interested in pitying them or bemoaning their plight. Ballast is less a film of protest than survival, demonstrating the lengths, at once extraordinary and unremarkable, to which the characters will go to save each other.
Ballast is a quiet, delicately beautiful work, an assured debut that handily skirts the pitfalls of neo-neorealism. The movie's characters aren't specimens, or representatives, but distinct and complicated individuals whose shortcomings are outweighed by their generosity of spirit. They give back to each other, and Ballast gives back to us.”
<< Back to Reviews