A rock-ribbed sense of committed, personal cinema and a core belief in people being able to pull themselves out of misery supports “Ballast,” an extraordinary debut by editor-writer-director Lance Hammer. Though his name would be better suited to sign high-octane action movies, Hammer quickly establishes himself with the only film he’s ever made as a humanist artist working confidently and quietly with the cinema’s most basic and expressive tools. Following a Mississippi Delta family shattered by suicide and violence, pic runs a course from wrenching death to possible uplift that seems real every second, but will prove a challenge to potential distribs even while winning over fests worldwide.
A rare case of a Sundance competition film also in the running at Berlin, such a one-two punch suggests a notable work, but also perhaps creates inflated expectations, even though unknowns are involved on both sides of the camera. Hammer’s achievement is to create a thoroughly engrossing experience that attends to everyday life’s small (and in a few cases, significant) moments, and is certain to command high respect as a film that operates by its principles and engages audiences’ best human responses.
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Opening passage isn’t small but stark, as Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.) is found in mute shock in his living room by neighbor John (Johnny McPhail). Lawrence’s twin brother, Darius, has fatally OD’d in his bed, and Lawrence’s response is to shoot himself. Badly wounded, he recovers over weeks in the hospital.
The portly Lawrence’s connection with single parent mom Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and her 12-year-old boy James (JimMyron Ross) is gradually revealed, as James drives his scooter over to Lawrence’s place and demands money from him at gunpoint–money which belonged to his father, the late Darius. James, who seems to love Marlee as much as any 12-year-old lad can express it, is also getting into trouble with some teen dope dealers (with Ventress Bonner as the lead guy in the group) for whom he does some drops and to whom he also owes money.
Both Lawrence and Marlee are also on personal precipices; he’s so shell-shocked by Darius’ death that he can barely talk and hasn’t re-opened his small food market, while Marlee is fired from her cleaning job. James’ release comes from his wanderings in the nearby fields, and his connection with nature and animals (including the family dog who’s half-wolf); his total lack of friends set him apart as a unique lad.
The ensuing reconciliation between Marlee, bitter at both Darius and Lawrence for “fucking up my life,” and Lawrence, who reminds Marlee that her past drug addiction hardly made her a saint, is extremely well-earned and well-observed by Hammer’s intimately involved camera (with powerful widescreen support by gifted lenser Lol Crawley, also in his feature debut).
Impact of the Dardennes brothers’ films on world cinema is hardly news, but few prior Yank filmmakers have embraced the Belgian siblings’ love of immersion in the lives of poor folks, finding them in the immediate moment during moral crises. Other film touchstones for “Ballast” include Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (as an unvarnished look at African American families) and Carlos Reygadas’ debut “Japon,” also a case of a born filmmaker arriving out of left field with a cinematically audacious statement.
Perfs by non-pros are stunning, led by the dynamic and emotionally magnetic Riggs as Marlee and Smith in a role that builds from meek silence to strength. Ross, whose deep Southern accent is a bit difficult to comprehend, also grows impressively as James. Only pro is McPhail, as the caring neighbor.
Exquisite soundtrack should be studied by American filmmakers of all types, since it relies on actual sound derived from the story’s evocative environment, without a drop of composed music.