Writer-editor-director Lance Hammer's rhythmically enervated debut feature-length picture, Ballast, set in the absorbing setting of the Mississippi delta, is an authentically impressionistic piece of verite filmmaking set at such disciplined, taut and intimate parameters that the film's occasionally lengthy intercises only further engage the perspicacity of the more sensitive viewers. While Ballast will not sweepingly capture every heart or mind—the film's chaste stylistic shaping and lucidly intelligible but unadorned narrative forbid less rewarding mass appeal—but for those substantially more receptive to the film's deceptive fathomage, the rewards are many. Hammer's technique is dusty, with a light melange of dailiness and dolefulness providing an irreplaceable balance, but he does not resort to what one may fear, namely an oppressively depressing disposition that would slowly sabotage his efforts. What one finds with Ballast is actually an honest, uncompromisingly related tale of ordinariness. Tragedy is an ubiquitous fact and facet of life, and Hammer allows for that transitory realization, always to be overtaken by the utilitarian strain of consciousness, to linger with an abnormally humane resonance.
Three people are at the heart of Ballast. Gracefully introduced is James, a boy frequently riding a motorbike, who, in a fit of discontentment and boredom, charges at a flock of geese. Hammer's apparent etching of the film's major first movement gorgeously plays out in this symbolic, cinematic and narrative overture, as the boy's untamed recklessness will yield results as disparate and uncontrollable as the flock of birds he unthinkingly disturbs. Vocally reticent, the boy, James (JimMyron Ross) allows his actions to speak most loudly, and when he acts impulsively, others suffer consequences. James' father commits suicide. The father's twin brother, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Sr.), finds himself victimized by the wayward boy, who points his own uncle's gun at him to extort money with which he can buy drugs from a small group of thuggish dealers. Soon the actions of James will lead to considerable problems for his mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs).
The film's simple but urgently unfurled plot provides the three characters to organically blossom like flowers, blooming in their respective elaborations and in relation to one another. Hammer's pacing is almost unfailingly exquisite, harnessing every sensible tool that will heighten his picture's maximally engrossing and convincing verisimilitude, creating muted tension and poetically sharp beats of characterization. Definitively drawing highly appropriate conclusions about James, Lawrence and Marlee, Hammer gives the three semblables a backdrop of musty environs, dankly irriguous cotton fields and pluviously humid conditions that behave like a retractable scrim for the American neo-realistic play to proceed. As exterior forces appear malevolent in their nature against these three, Hammer carefully portrays their triangular relationship as a breaking of bread, and extensions of olive branches. An important shot during which James rests in the foreground while Lawrence and Marlee discuss the boy's fate allows for the adults' heads to remain, in the distance, unfocused, perceptibly communicating the viewpoint James possesses. Naturalism in camerawork prevails but the lighting is accentuated with a bluish-gray tinting, with the utilization of lens filters that leave the screen finally glaciated. Lol Crowley's cinematography endows the characters with apt penumbras of asperous hues.
What one most vividly recollects after immediately taking Ballast in is the creditableness and authenticity. These laudable attributes are quintessential to the picture's success, and they entirely transcend the limitations of what could be making mundane points about the under-class depicted herein. The film is far removed from all forms of editorializing. What lingers most is how it reminds one of the behavior of oneself, reminding the viewer, for instance, just how much time one spends on the floor during childhood. Or how mothers usually only want to know that a child will assist in cooking dinner or help in other ways, not necessarily intent on seeing the child completely follow through with the nascent activity of selflessness and love. The universality behind the film's blunt sincerity serves partly as an invitation, and most importantly as an indubitable axiom, made as forged cinematic writ.
One cannot help but to consider films Ballast resembles in intention and design. From David Gordon Green's George Washington to Charles Burnett's wonderful Killer of Sheep (Tarra Riggs's Marlee recalls Kaycee Moore's mournful attractiveness paradoxically festering, nevertheless marked by severely pained comprehension that impacts her entire comportment), to the films of the Belgian Dardenne brothers and naturally to the classic Italian neo-realist pictures that inspired these and many other filmmakers, evidently including Hammer. Using nonprofessional actors like Robert Bresson, Hammer allows the surety of the people his camera captures to foist the filmic umbrella of immediacy and idiomatic truthfulness. The selection of non-actors here is retroactively surprising, as Michael J. Smith, Sr. is both literally and figuratively dominant, his husky and amply bulky frame visually imposing itself on the boy and mother in a way that subconsciously conveys the intrusive and intimidating position he unenviably stakes in their lives, blamed as he is by Marlee for the mutual fate that has swallowed all three in the wake of tragedy. Riggs is touching as Marlee, oscillating between sternness and coldness for Lawrence and loving warmth for James. Ross has the natural charisma of a child, but tempers it with a grounding of physical movement, leaving the lasting impression of a boy nearly always uncomfortable with himself.
Whereas most pictures tend to accumulate suspense, dutifully mounting the “jeopardy” at hand for the characters rigorously embedded in the film, Hammer works entirely against such formulaic trappings. Rather than tighten the noose, he allows it to slacken, jumping off of a first act almost seemingly besotted with the threateningly present hand of violence, in two or three drastically different forms of the self-inflicted, only to give the mundaneness that follows a proper context. It is out of this pit of self-destruction, both straightforwardly suicidal and circuitously extraneous, that James, Marlee and Lawrence dig. The first act, with its more incendiary and pernicious obstacles, gives heft to and supplies ambient context for the asomatous restoration that follows. For his part, Hammer varies the speed and pitch of the film's progressing arc of assiduous empathetic treatment of his characters. Displaying an expansive and erstwhile range of compositional framings, shooting James in close-up in one shot, followed by a medium shot of Lawrence, or a long, distant statuary shot of James in the foreground in a tree observing Marlee and Lawrence conversing, Hammer effectively demonstrates an eloquence of form that is occasionally deeply resplendent.
Ballast tells a story, and it has a message, but both properties to this most welcome creation are only parts of the larger artistic agenda. The film has a headstrong obtuseness to it, a blindness, that is necessary to make this docu-drama virtually immaculate in its austerity and unwillingness to spoon-feed. The personal conditions that lead to the film's brutal beginning are never deeply examined because, firstly, the picture is about the aftermath, not the build-up (in a reversal of Gordon Green's Snow Angels and The House of Sand and Fog and countless other indies of varying shades of monochromatic grimness), and the psychological resurrection, not the death, and secondly, because the viewer can resourcefully intuit the details of the back-story with little difficulty.
Where Ballast goes, how it operates and what its destination holds in store for its three main characters—all can, or at least, should, be written about in merely oblique language, enticing those who wish to partake in the rewards of the risk. Hammer overwhelmingly presents the viewer with the predicated root of artful construction. With his debut work, he goes back, almost in time, almost with a naivete, a refreshing guilelessness. With Ballast, he takes the mythical glories of creative expression, of dramatic conception, back home. He observes.