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Ballast opens with a wide panoramic view of a bleak, waterlogged, windswept landscape; birds taking off in the grey distance. But for the three lonely individuals at the heart of Lance Hammer’s astonishing debut film, escape is not an option. To survive is all they can hope for.
Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), overweight, sits alone, smoking silently as he stares into space. His twin brother, Darius, lies dead of an overdose in the bedroom. A kindly neighbour, having noticed that Lawrence’s convenience store hasn’t been opened in days, stops by and offers help. Unable to contain his grief, Lawrence attempts suicide by shooting himself in the chest.
After being rushed to hospital, Lawrence survives. On his return home he takes a letter from Darius to his ex-wife, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), who lives alone with their 12-year-old son James (Jim Myron Ross). Marlee works in a dead end job cleaning toilets and James, left alone all day, starts to get into trouble with some local drug dealers. Whilst Lawrence is in hospital, James breaks into his home and manages to steal his gun. He later attempts to rob his uncle at gunpoint. After a violent encounter with the teen drug dealers, Marlee seeks refuge in the house next door to Lawrence left her by his brother.
It is a brave choice to make a film about an impoverished family living in the Mississippi Delta but writer/director Hammer succeeds brilliantly in crafting a poignant drama out of desolation. The sparseness of the characters’ barren lives is mirrored in Lou Crawley’s cinematography (for which he was awarded a Sundance Prize) and the film’s deliberately unhurried pace.
Through carefully composed frames we follow, step by step, Lawrence’s stay in hospital, his operation and slow recovery and, running parallel to this, Marlee’s routine toil, alleviated only by sleep. In contrast, Crawley’s handheld camerawork creates a vivid sense of the chaos that threatens to destroy James.
The performances are utterly authentic. Hammer uses non-professional local actors and Ross helps shape the character of James, though using his own words, motivations and actions.
True, there are not many laughs to be had in Ballast. The frequent shots of the outdoor statues of deer are one light touch, but even they look battered and forlorn. This is a film about ordinary people’s lives, about despair and loneliness and while some may find the overall subject matter depressing, it’s hard not to admire its honesty. This is reality for many African-Americans and Hammer presents a snapshot of their lives, warts and all, with just a hint of redemption at the end. Ballast packs a punch and its raw, visceral quality is hard to forget.