“This review originally appeared during the Sundance Film Festival. Ballast opens in New York today.
Ballast is the kind of movie that Iâ€™m predisposed to enjoyâ€“â€“a slow, score-free and sometimes actually silent character study, offering the chance to spend some time watching real-ish people floating in and out of a crisis point, demanding that we engage by refusing to pander for that engagementâ€“â€“and yet its wonders still crept up on me. But falling for a movie is like falling for anything, I guess; you donâ€™t really know itâ€™s happening until the undeniable gut punch.
For me, that moment came about two thirds of the way through Ballast, with a shot of a young boy lying on the floor, listening to adults speak off camera while absentmindedly stroking the belly of a giant dog. Like every shot in Lance Hammerâ€™s feature directorial debut, itâ€™s dead simple but beautifully composed, and it gets you by playing hard to get.
The story begins with the suicide attempts of twin brothers Lawrence and Darius. Dariusâ€™ is successful, Lawrenceâ€™s is not, and after surgery and therapy, he returns to the dreary plot of land he shared with his brother and delivers a letter that passes for a will to Marlee, the estranged mother of Dariusâ€™ child. That child, 12 year-old James, is developing a taste for guns and crack (the local drug dealers, maybe five years his senior, are the only professional role models in spitting distance) which in short time leads to Marlee being beaten so badly that sheâ€™s fired from her job as a janitor. First James and then Marlee reluctantly turn to Lawrence for help, and in the name of making Marlee a living and giving James an education, the three move towards a tentative partnership and with it, a renewed reason to live.
Itâ€™s hardly a honeymoon, and some of Ballastâ€™s most impressive moments come from the deliberate drawing of the friction between the three, as they stumble towards some kind of familial intimacy. Lawrence is wracked with shock and heartbreak over the loss of his twin; Marlee, a former addict living hand to mouth, barely in control of her own life in spite of desperate efforts, is clearly terrified that sheâ€™s lost all ability to help her son as well. Each adult needs the other, but both are too broken and wary to accept it. As Hammerâ€™s camera hops slowly from one cold, blue-gray setup to the next, the two engage in countless rounds of emotional combat, with every couple of gains counteracted by a major loss. As their mutual trust builds, Marlee and Lawrence each make a gesture of physical intimacy towards the other, and each is rejected. Both times, Hammerâ€™s camera sits on the instigator as they swallow their humiliation, and you can almost physically feel it burn.
Hammer shot Ballast on 35mm in the winterâ€™s available light in rural Mississippi, with a cast of non-professional local actors, and discarded his script in order to flesh out the story via a two-month rehearsal process. The look, locale and subject matter couldnâ€™t more different from Hannah Takes the Stairs, but with Ballast Hammer joins Joe Swanberg in the club of American filmmakers who are turning to stripped-down production methods and intense improvisation in search of emotional truth. The more that films like this manage to break through the wall of noise at festivals like Sundance, the better chance critics, filmmakers and audiences have of seeing each movie both on its own terms, and as part of a larger wave of back-to-basics American independent filmmaking that defies pejorative genre classifications.”
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