In Stark, Simple 'Ballast,' An Emotional Stalemate

Micheal J. Smith, Sr. i i

Trying times: Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith) struggles to move forward after a family tragedy. Alluvial Film Company hide caption

itoggle caption Alluvial Film Company
Micheal J. Smith, Sr.

Trying times: Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith) struggles to move forward after a family tragedy.

Alluvial Film Company

Ballast

  • Director: Lance Hammer
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 96 minutes

Unrated: several acts of violence, mostly off-screen or distanced.

JimMyron Ross and Tarra Riggs i i

With little oversight from his overworked mother (Tarra Riggs), James (JimMyron Ross) spirals increasingly out of control. Alluvial Film Company hide caption

itoggle caption Alluvial Film Company
JimMyron Ross and Tarra Riggs

With little oversight from his overworked mother (Tarra Riggs), James (JimMyron Ross) spirals increasingly out of control.

Alluvial Film Company

Set in the Mississippi Delta, home of the blues, Ballast is a stark, lonely lament. It's as dread-filled as a Robert Johnson song, but not as direct. That's because writer-director Lance Hammer melds plain-spoken American realism with oblique European minimalism.

Initially, the major characters seem utterly alone. The first image, rendered with wobbling hand-held camera, is of an early-adolescent boy running into a field. He rushes a flock of geese, who fly away. Soon the boy, later identified as James (JimMyron Ross), has the meadow to himself.

Next, a neighbor checks on twin brothers Darius and Lawrence. The latter sits silently, a bear-like man in a nearly catatonic state. He is also, in a sense, alone. In the bedroom is his brother's corpse, which has been lying there long enough to start stinking. Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) has done nothing about the situation, except to think about emulating Darius' suicide.

Several scenes later, we learn that James lives with his mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs). She works long hours as a cleaner, so James has plenty of unsupervised time. He's experimented with crack, guns and thievery. When the local dealer demands more cash, James goes to rob Lawrence.

These three characters, all African-American and all alienated from their surroundings, turn out to be sort of a family. James is Lawrence's nephew; Darius was the boy's father. But Marlee and Lawrence have long distrusted each other. So Lawrence is dubious when Marlee offers to run the brothers' convenience store, which has been padlocked since Darius' death. The arrangement could unite the trio of loners, but it's not clear that togetherness is what any of them wants.

Working with mostly untrained actors, Hammer has created a marvelously intimate and unforced character study. James, Lawrence and Marlee are utterly believable, as are their economic and psychological stalemates.

What they are not is ingratiating, which is one of the crucial ways in which Ballast differs from Hollywood fare. Hammer doesn't try to make his characters — or his film — easy to like or understand. So he offers neither a tragic climax nor an artificially sweetened final reconciliation.

Stylistically, the movie is equally aloof. Using natural light, cinematographer Lol Crawley follows the actors very closely, even into shadows that obscure their faces. There's little dialogue, and no added music. With none of the sweeping strings or surging gospel choir that Hollywood would have inserted, the soundtrack emphasizes ambient sounds, notably grinding car engines and a buzzing motorbike.

Ballast has been widely compared to the work of Belgium's Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, directors of such poverty-level dramas as Rosetta and La Promesse. In style and milieu, the similarity is undeniable. Yet the Dardennes' films, for all their grounding in documentary randomness, boast sturdier dramatic structures.

Austerely beautiful and emotionally candid, Hammer's film is an impressive directorial debut. Yet it doesn't quite achieve the gravity it intends: Ballast means to be a full portrait of desperation on the margins of American society, but it feels more like a finely rendered sketch.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.