Unhurried rhythms and spare, beautifully composed shots infuse Lance Hammer’s Ballast with the sweet, dark melancholy of a Delta blues. This remarkable, unfailingly intelligent debut film, rooted in the Mississippi Delta’s vanishing way of life, tells of the fall-out from one man’s suicide on three people.
Ballast doesn’t portray the sensual Delta of popular imagination, the one drenched in sunshine and teeming with fecundity and song. Instead, the film’s haunting tableaus of loss and healing are photographed against a wintry gray sky that casts a chill, bluish pall over the endless vista of bare, resting fields. Ballast‘s opening alternates between James (JimMyron Ross), a 12-year-old African-American boy roaming the vast flatscape, and Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), a big, stony-faced man sitting in his small, dark house, frozen with grief. In a typically evocative shot, James approaches a dense flock of migrating geese as it lifts off, crowding the air with beating wings and honking cries. Like the trains that periodically race by, the flock is only passing through, but the middle-aged Lawrence, James, and his valiant, struggling mom, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), are trapped, each one in a bubble of increasingly desperate loneliness.
Whether wandering outside, planted in front of his TV, or attending a school we never see (but that is evidently plagued by violence and adult indifference), James is alone and in trouble. He makes drug runs for a group of older teens to support his burgeoning coke habit and is fascinated with guns. His loving mother slaves in a night-time cleaning job and is too anxious and exhausted to see the clues. James owes the gang money, and soon mother and son take refuge with Lawrence, whom Marlee hates with an old and bitter passion.
The conflicts, truths, and, ultimately, grace and dignity that bind these three together are brought to authentic life, without Hollywood-style exaggeration, through the quiet little miracles of performance that Hammer coaxes from his non-actors, especially the heartrending Riggs—and all save one are Delta residents that he found through local community centers and churches.
This writer-director is also bravely unafraid of silence—at least human silence—for his images are continuously awash in the sounds of the wintertime Delta: the wind, the rain, the wet crunch of boots on bare, sodden ground. Hammer cleaves to the stripped-down reality of Dogma filmmaking, but there’s no theoretical preciousness to drag down Ballast‘s clear, spare lyricism or muddy the pleasures of its ambiguities. British cinematographer Lol Crawley moves his camera so intuitively within this world that, at times, it seems to express the consciousness of the viewer. And Hammer’s artful jump cuts between scenes, as well as the film’s abrupt ending, create just enough tension to draw you in, but leave just enough mystery to let you create your own understanding of what’s happening between Lawrence, James, and Marlee, and to form your own insights into the psyches of these people trying to survive with their souls intact.
The film’s characters aren’t the only ones confronting challenges: The sky continues to cave in for independent American filmmakers trying to survive with their financing intact. Ballast won several festival prizes this year, including the Sundance awards for cinematography and dramatic directing, and was snapped up for distribution by IFC Films. But even this supposedly plum arrangement would’ve required Hammer to forfeit the rights to his film for 20 years, with no guarantee of recouping his expenses. So, instead, he’s distributing Ballast on his own—theater by theater, town by town. Like his fictional characters, he’s doing it for himself.