Ballast Directed by: Lance Hammer Cast: Michael J. Smith Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins Rating: Not rated
Plot: A man's sudden suicide affects the lives of the three people whom considered him a brother, husband, and an uncle. (For those who don't know, "ballast" is defined as dead weight that provides a certain degree of steadiness).
Who’s It For? The dramatic film's pacing, abrupt editing, lack of soundtrack and general emptiness cater to the art-house crowd. Like other independent films, Ballast demands its viewers' patience and requires the watcher to voluntarily want to explore its subtexts.
Expectations: Ballast had a lot of buzz at the Chicago International Film Festival. On top of that, it has already won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and is up for four nominations at the Gotham Independent Film Awards ... so yes, I was exicted.
Michael J. Smith Sr. as Lawrence: After the suicide of his identical twin brother, the words and reactions of Lawrence are stolen by his grief and confusion. Lawrence convincingly and beautifully portrayed by the nearly-silent first time actor. The blankness behind Smith Sr.'s ordinary face hints at profound degrees of sorrow. This sadness is accompanied by miniscule dialogue that slowly cracks out of its shell, growing into more than one sentence at a time as he begins to heal. Score: 7
JimMyron Ross as James: The least impacting of the three main characters is the troublesome young boy James. His malicious actions are abrasive and distracting to the general focus of the film's grief. A weak subplot within Ballast involves James' flirtation with drugs, which feels emotionally and logically disruptive from the rest of the film. Ross is convincing as an actor, but his character is too desperate for an emotional response from an audience already weakened by Hammer's story. Score: 5
Tarra Riggs as Marlee: This character is a mix between the grieved Lawrence and the chaotic James. She is deeply affected by the loss, but proactively goes about making a living off of whatever her husband/Lawrence's twin left behind. When Marlee is dealing with her out of control son, Riggs plays the mother with regiment and tone-altering loudness. Together, they work to disturb the film's peacefulness. That being said, in the third act of the film, the actress lets her buried emotions form an effective and quiet harmony with her brother-in-law.
Talking: Ballast is excellent in its realization of the silence created by grief, and its saddened tone benefits from the sparsity of dialogue. Writer-director Lance Hammer successfully uses authentic human beings from the Mississippi Delta to achieve natural vernacular and rhythm.
Sights: Hammer's passionate eye for life and death within the Mississippi Delta translates into beautiful cinematography. His adamance in the use of handheld cameras captures the grim reality of his characters and canvases. Constantly behind the characters, the camera is always following them or even listening in as they interact in the desolate yet beautiful environment that Hammer has become obsessed with. The eye of Ballast selectively documents only days with gray skies, a choice that adds to the film's sad, unique tone. Absolutely beautiful.
Sounds: Emphasizing the film's emptiness is a lack of soundtrack. The only background music, so to say, is that of the Delta: melancholy harmoniousness is instrumented by blowing wind, crickets, and the sounds of geese. Score: 7
The Mississippi Delta is a gray crater that Hammer fills with complicated main characters. Though the overwhelming somberness of Ballast can feel like attending the funeral never shown in the film, buried beneath the Delta and the disorientation affecting each character is a sense of unity. It is the story of loss told with rare humanity, even if its subplot with its young (supposedly vulnerable) character is guilty of begging for cheap reactions.
The successful debut from writer/director/editor Lance Hammer will arouse excitement in the indie film/festival circuit wherever it hasn't done so already. Ballast is the work of a skilled filmmaker whose vast repertoire is inevitable, even if the distribution of such work will be questionable.
Final Score: 7/10