It’s sometimes necessary to discuss a movie without reducing it to a category. Unfortunately, that’s not what critics often do. A film like Lance Hammer’s Ballast deserves to be considered on its own terms, rather than compartmentalized and defined in relation to concurrent film movements. To simply talk about the aesthetics and storytelling approach of Ballast by comparing it to the work of the Dardenne brothers or perhaps the American independent strategies of early David Gordon Green (both of which dredge up even more film historical categories, respectively neorealism and a Malickian brand of poetic naturalism) is an easy out, and not that different from reducing it to labels like “Southern” or “black.” The critical tendency to see a film only in terms of its brethren becomes increasingly tiresome and often denies both the emotional specifics that go into a film’s character creation and the likely intentions of the filmmaker, not to mention raises questions of what’s relevant to audiences outside of cinephilic circles. To only play the compare and contrast game is an easy out from wrestling with the film at hand, and Ballast is a film worth wrestling with.
After initially noticing those technical touches that an avid film watcher might deem as “borrowed from” or “indebted to” other works (yes, a Dardenne-esque over-the-shoulder opening shot; sure, a Malickian focus on birds, trees, expanses of sky captured with natural light), I soon settled into a narrative I felt I hadn’t seen before at all. To those who would care to compare Ballast’s trajectory of hard-won, if barely perceptible, redemption as particularly reminiscent of Rosetta or The Son, I would argue that the specifics of this film’s milieu and its characters’ incremental sense of self-awareness and betterment feel wholly its own, not to mention entirely American. And the David Gordon Green comparison is utterly specious: Ballast is not burdened with the sort of voiceover-heavy poetic mythologizing that made George Washington ultimately rather precious, and in retrospect of Green’s career, perhaps disingenuous—all that links the films is the race of the characters. Ballast has a tender approach to character that is certainly poetic, but it’s never mechanistic. Hammer’s characters are taciturn (Michael J. Smith’s store-owner Lawrence), frustrated and animated (Tarra Riggs’s single mom Marlee), and youthfully erratic (Marlee’s 12-year-old son James, played by JimMyron Ross) in ways that always feel true to their given situation; Ballast’s only structuring “device” seems to be its filmmaker’s compassion.
Click here to read Jeff Reichert’s interview with filmmaker Lance Hammer.