Reviewed by: David Graham

A contemplative character study of three lost souls, Ballast marks the writing and directorial debut of Lance Hammer, sometime visual effects artist on the likes of Batman & Robin and Batman Forever (we'll forgive him for those). An award winner at 2008's Sundance festival, the film has sat on the shelf since then, only now receiving a belated UK release with little fanfare. This is something of a shame, as what could have been American indie-by-numbers reveals itself to be a distinctive experience, raw and cathartic with an unforced dramatic undertow that resonates beyond its low-key ending.

Ballast begins in the aftermath of the sort of numbing tragedy that many art-house films climax with. A shattered man sits silent on a couch, oblivious to the concerned neighbour at the door. When the reality of the situation starts to dawn on him, Lawrence calmly leaves and enters the house next door, leaving the concerned old man to deal with what has happened. Nearby, single mother Marlee struggles to stay financially afloat while trying to keep her disaffected teenage son James out of trouble with the local dealers. A shared history is soon revealed for the three characters, their reluctance to revisit the past tempered by a dawning realisation that the only hope they have for the future may lie with each other.

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If all this sounds earnest and worthy, it should be noted that Hammer pays more attention to atmosphere and nuance than overt emotion and narrative events. This is literally one of the bluest films you'll ever see, the wintry Mississippi delta steeped in steely shades that echo the male leads' emotionless distancing of themselves from their reality. The stark backdrop is illuminated by some beautiful cinematography, the camera lingering on empty fields, scattered debris and bare trees to reflect upon the shattered internal landscape shared by the trio of often wordless characters. The sound design also helps put us in their place, avoiding soundtrack (there is none) to place emphasis on the textural noise made by the mundane; a scene where Lawrence finally cleans his own blood off his living room wall is made quietly devastating by the familiar scrape of a brillo and the smoothing sound of the water washing it all away.

The film's striking aesthetics might not mean much if they weren't complemented by powerful performances, so it's to Hammer's credit that he had the faith to go with unprofessional actors and allow them to improvise through the situations he sets up for them. This approach is clearly indebted to Mike Leigh, but it leads to even more austere and affecting scenes than his sometimes overly actorly films manage.

Michael J Smith Sr is a clammed-up rock of pent-up feeling as Lawrence, as noble in his suffering as he is pathetic in his lack of self-worth. JimMyron Ross is even better as young James, his evident frustration with his family's poverty and the community's hopelessness balanced by a naive appreciation of the small things in life and a hesitant but sincere love for his mother.

As Marlee, Tarra Riggs gives the film's standout performance, warm and nurturing one minute, railing in rage at the injustice of her lot the next. She is gifted the majority of the dialogue, managing to transcend some overly obvious scripting with her sheer intensity. Any known actress would have loved to sink their teeth into this part, but none would have filled out its crucial details so naturally. Each of the characters are fascinating in their own way; much of the film's slow-burning appeal comes from watching them navigate around each other, spurning the past they represent but helplessly drawn towards one another nonetheless.

Towards the resolution, there are revelations of suppressed emotions that hit home hard for being etched with aching simplicity. While the narrative initially seems to be wandering down some well worn paths, it takes a refreshing road towards redemption with the characters' humble steps towards self-improvement. The intensity of the opening scenes and the early presence of the drug dealing gang instill a sense of menace that never alleviates, even as the trio start to heal each others' emotional wounds, but Ballast is so absorbing because it bravely avoids dramatic cliches to deliver a more positive experience than might be expected.

Hammer wrings a surprising amount of tension from his characters' attempts to forge some happiness for themselves, and our involvement in their plight grows exponentially as the film drifts towards its denouement. That the writer/director manages to resist a grand-standing ending only makes his debut all the more affecting, lingering in the audience's thoughts long past the credits. Ballast could have been an exercise in mopey indulgence, but instead stands as a heartfelt ode to perseverance that hopefully marks the beginning of an illustrious new career for its creator.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2011
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An emotionally frayed family find their lives torn apart in a small Mississippi Delta town.
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Director: Lance Hammer

Writer: Lance Hammer

Starring: Michael J Smith Sr, Jim Myron Ross, Tarra Riggs, Johnny McPhail

Year: 2008

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US

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