[EDITOR'S NOTE: Anthony Kaufman reviewed "Ballast" at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the film opens in limited release this week.]
The cool, wet misty plains of the Mississippi Delta offer little comfort to the three protagonists of art-director Lance Hammer's bracing feature debut "Ballast." In fact, the desolate surroundings--yards with broken cars, fields with no harvest, decrepit gas stations--only further reflect their downtrodden condition. But by the time this remarkably sure-footed first film is finished, a slight glimmer of hopefulness arises among the psychological and physical turmoil.
The film's opening shot is striking: a young black boy runs away towards a screaming flock of seagulls filling the sky. The eruption of noise and movement quickly gives way to silence and stillness and the title credit. Inside a small shack of a house, a neighbor stumbles inside to find the near catatonic resident, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith), a large black man shocked and unable to speak. Another man has died inside. Driven to utter despondency, Lawrence goes to a second small house nearby, picks up a gun and shoots himself.
Beautifully patient in the way it reveals plot, character and motivation, "Ballast" moves gracefully like an art film, in the best sense of the word. When a young black boy, James, shows up in Lawrence's house, gun pointed towards Lawrence's head, seeking information about the dead man and Lawrence's own self-inflicted wound, the scene is as tense and suspenseful as it is intriguing. What is their relationship? And why doesn't the overpowering Lawrence simply pounce on his pint-sized intruder. All in good time.
James, we learn, has his own problems. Indebted to some local drug dealers to the amount of $100 -- which in this depressed milieu feels like $10,000 -- James is on a scarily downward spiral. His run-in with the local hoodlums eventually forces he and his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) onto Lawrence's property, where bitter conflicts erupt to the surface.
Working in 35mm with British cinematographerLol Crawley, Hammer follows James's wandering, from drug dealer's broken-down lair to empty dirt roads, with a handheld looseness and ever-riding focus that recalls the Dardenne brothers. But whatever the influences, it suits the material; suggestive of the title, there is little about James' life that warrants a stable camera.
While James is the pivot on which this minimalist story rotates, the film jolts alive when Marlee finds herself at the end of her rope and must contend directly with Lawrence, a painful reminder of her past. The relationship between these two former rivals breathes energy into the film at just the right moment, and the way in which they must come together is fraught with complex layers of guilt, anger and need. One remarkable scene begins tenderly and then slowly gives way to betrayal; if there is an instant of sentiment, Hammer pulls it away and squashes it into the Mississippi mud.
According to Hammer, he spent a long time casting nonprofessional actors Michael J. Smith, Sr., Tarra Riggs and JimMyron Ross (who plays James), and worked with them in extensive rehearsals to make the script and its anguish their own. The strategy pays off, particularly with Riggs, who powerfully conveys Marlee's suffering as a hard-working woman who can't catch a break. Smith Jr.'s Lawrence is also compelling to watch, a strong hulk of a man who sags under the weight of depression.
"Ballast" is a tough movie, no doubt. But it's far from impenetrable (the conclusion, in fact, is perhaps too obviously telegraphed.) On the contrary, what emerges is a crystal clear humanist vision of broken-down people who find a semblance of stability in each other.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.