Ballast (2008): Highlight of Sundance Film Fest

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Dramatic Competition)–With spare and minimalist yet powerful strokes, “Ballast,” the feature directorial debut of the gifted Lance Hammer, captures a slice of African-American Life in the Mississippi Delta in a way that recalls the early lyrical work of Charles Burnett, specifically “Killer of Sheep.”

“Ballast” is a highlight of this year’s dramatic competition, a film that will also play at the Berlin Film Festival, in February.  Hopefully a courageous distributor would release this feature theatrically. Though the subject may be perceived as too depressing and the mood too somber by distributors seeking commercial features, “Ballast” should play the global festival circuit and should appeal to followers of indie cinema stateside and in foreign markets. Above all, signaling an impressive debut, the film should serve as a calling card for director Hammer, whose future work I’m now eager to see.

The opening images of “Ballast,” which present a young boy drifting freely in a vast Mississippi Delta flat scapes and a middle-aged man immobilized by grief in the darkness of a small rural home, capture effectively the duality of the film’s themes: present versus past, oppression versus regeneration. Indeed, if the first can be regarded as image of hope for “what can be,” the second is an image of regret for “what has become.” It’s the emotional expanse between these poles that the narrative’s successive imagery and story seek to reconcile.

On one level, “Ballast” is a painfully persuasive coming-of-age tale. When introduced, the protagonist, 12-year-old James (Jim Myron Ross) is already stumbling under the weight of poverty that has been endemic to the Delta. His single mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) struggles to sustain their tenuous existence through long hours at a demeaning, poorly paying job which leaves James to his own devices.

Wandering, James ventures into the natural landscape, where he finds solace, but also into the turbulent company of local teenagers headed by the hoodlum Ventress Bonner, whom he seeks to impress. James’ willingness to perform the occasional drug drop with his motorcycle bodes well for his social acceptance, a goal he desires and patiently pursues.

One morning, James points his motorcycle in a new direction. He travels fifteen miles to the home of Lawrence, the middle-aged man seen at the beginning. While it’s unclear what motivates the cruelty the boy inflicts upon this devastated man, it’s clearly that their lives are intertwined.  They share a past that’s gradually unfolds, revealing the characters’ motivations and causes.

When James’ interaction with the teenagers turns abruptly violent, Marlee reacts instinctively to excise him from the conflict. Fleeing their home at night, they land on Lawrence’s property. Expectations are raised that the new milieu will provide them with safety, but those expectations are quickly negated when we realize that the visit rekindles fury of malignant and irresolvable conflicts between Lawrence and Marlee ever since James had been born. Lawrence (Michael J. Smith) is further shocked when Marlee claims half of his property.

When Lawrence’s twin brother Darius fatally overdoses in his room, the former’s instinctive reaction is to shoot himself.  What ensues is a demonstration of the value of humility when a child’s future is in peril. “Ballast” is also an exploration of an instinct to protect the ideal of “potential” as it is embodied in youth, in this case, protection from devastating poverty. Though grief has left Lawrence hopeless, and guilt has rendered him suicidal, he must now consider a child.

“Ballast” is more about characters than plot, about mood and tone rather than linear narrative, and striking visuals reinforce that sense, since the movie is set in the dead of winter, a season that makes sheer endurance particularly tough. Like Burnett, Hammer emphasizes grace and dignity in the face of sorrow, and the power of images to convey ideas and feeling in a way that language is incapable of; the text is deliberately kept minimal and unobtrusive.

Like other ultra-realistic works, “Ballast” relies on non-professional actors. With one exception, all the characters are portrayed by residents of the Delta townships where the film was recorded. Though Hammer had prepared a shooting script, he opted not to share it with his ensemble, instead encouraging them to develop their persona. During a two-month rehearsal process, the actors contributed their own words, and the dialogue evolving as a direct result of that process.

Enhancing the film’s aura of authenticity is the fact that all of the imagery was photographed by Lol Crawley in existing locations, with available light on 35mm film.  Stylistically, “Ballast” recalls such hyper-realistically art films as the works of the Belgian Dardenne brothers (“Rosetta” and “The Child,” both winners of Cannes Film Fest’s Palme d’Or) and of Mexico’s enfant terrible Carlos Reygadas, particularly his first film, “Japon.”

I was not surprised to read in the press notes that Lance Hammer is 40: “Ballast” is an emotionally mature work in a way that twentysomething directors (the prevalent norm at Sundance) could not have achieved since they often make their first feature after graduation from school, without any life experience. Also not surprising, judging by the film’s rich visual design, is the fact that Hammer had studied art and architecture

End Note

“Ballast” deservedly won the Dramatic Jury Awards for Directing and Cinematography.

Cast

Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr)

James (Jim Myron Ross)

Marlee (Tarra Riggs)

John (Johnny McPhail)

Credits

An Alluvial Film Company presentation. Produced by Lance Hammer, Nina Parikh. Executive producers: Andrew Adamson, John J. Hammer, Mark Johnson, Aimee Shieh. Directed, written by Lance Hammer. Camera: Technicolor, widescreen, Lol Crawley. Editor: Lance Hammer. Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer. Sound: Sam Watson. Sound designer: Kent Sparling.

Running time: 95 Minutes.