"Ballast": A Time for Letting Go By Marco Spagnoli

in 51st San Francisco International Film Festival

by Marco Spagnoli

Set in the Mississippi Delta, Ballast is a tale of “quiet desperation” centered on a dysfunctional African-American family facing an unexpected chance to restore normality to their lives after a tragic event.

Directed by newcomer Lance Hammer — a graduate from the University of Southern California with a degree in architecture who honed his skills working at different technical positions in Hollywood — Ballast won the directing and cinematography awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

It’s a strong movie that, using a very interesting rhythm, draws the audience toward difficult characters who somehow remain obscured to us. Hammer doesn’t clearly define the relationships between all the people on screen at the beginning; instead, he slowly lets them unfold, gradually opening his story up to the possibility of change and the hope of peace. Employing a fast-paced editorial strategy, he presents the story as a collection of short fragments from the lives of three different people.

It all begins when a neighbor tries to reach Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.), who owns a nearby gas station. When the neighbor enters the house, he discovers a dead body and Lawrence sitting frozen and confused on the sofa. Lawrence’s twin brother has died of an overdose; seconds after the neighbor arrives, Lawrence shoots himself.

Rushed to the hospital, Lawrence survives — and must therefore face the fact that his brother did not. When he returns home some time later, Lawrence is robbed twice by a twelve-year-old boy. He doesn’t react, and even more surprising, he doesn’t seem to care, standing quietly still in the dark house with his unfathomable memories.

The boy, James (JimMyron Ross) is a tough, troubled teenager, a high-school dropout who pals around with some petty wannabe gangsters — who, incidentally, try to kill him and his mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), by causing a car accident. Mother and son flee to the house that belonged to Lawrence’s dead brother. The brother, whose death left all his belongings to Marlee, was James’ father. But establishing that Lawrence is the boy’s uncle doesn’t change the tone and the rhythm of the story.

Ballast is a complex movie that finishes in the same way it starts: It doesn’t resort to any coup de theatre to gain the audience’s favour, but instead proceeds to a quiet crescendo of surprises. Marlee and Lawrence have huge arguments about the future; only when she decides to reopen his gas station to earn a living do the characters seem to find something that binds them all together. The survival instinct in this movie is both psychological and practical.

While Lawrence remains enclosed in sorrow for days, with cigarettes as his only companion, Marlee tries to find a way to keep him moving forward with his life. Meanwhile, James — introduced as a troubled kid with no future — reveals himself to us for what he truly is: A sad, scared lonely child who likes to watch cartoons and play with the dog and cats around the house.

In Ballast, nobody is ultimately who we thought they were. (The title seems, ideally, to refer to the weight people have to abandon to stay afloat in life.) It’s a movie that gradually and assuredly pulls the audience in, without indulging in tricks or shortcuts, building an extraordinarily honest depiction of a difficult relationship without denying the possibility of hope or endorsing a nonsensical happy ending. The movie is a crescendo of emotions, told with objectivity and detachment by a director who never chooses the easy route in telling the story, yet keeps a constant focus on what’s essential to the narrative.

Hammer’s film spends many months with his three characters, employing the cinematic medium to its fullest and not wasting time with useless diversions or excesses. In this coherent, impressive hour and a half, Hammer explores fragments of troubled lives without indulging in melancholy, easily resisting the temptation to transform drama into tragedy.

Ballast is a dignified story that, with its open ending, considers at the necessity of overcoming fear in order to gain a future worth living for — or at least one in which it’s still possible to survive.