"Ballast": Bitter Despair By Vladan Petkovic
American director Lance Hammer’s debut feature is an impressively executed, grim minimalistic drama about a downtrodden Mississippi Delta family. Although its pace is remindful of the Dardenne brothers or Bruno Dumont, a clearer influence would be Nick Cassavetes in terms of subject matter, setting and treatment.
Ballast opens with a wide shot of a dark and wet winter landscape, which for the most part of the film’s duration will be the main setting for an equally dark and forbidding story. It gets underway with the suicide of Darius, who overdoses on pills. In the wake of his death, his twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J Smith Sr.) attempts to shoot himself but fails. The focus then shifts to the brothers’ neighbors — Marlee (Tarra Riggs), a single mother, and her 12-year old son James (Jim Myron Ross) — and soon we learn that James is Darius’ son. A local drug-dealing gang attracts James to what in this bleak surrounding of marshes, decrepit houses and hopeless unemployment might seem like a dynamic and interesting life. James owes the dealers money for crack and extorts it from Lawrence, who is mourning and has no motivation whatsoever to go on living. Even the store he used to run with Darius is now neglected and closed. When he agrees to let Marlee take care of it, the first glimpses of hope appear, only to be quickly discarded by Lawrence’s unsuccessful advances toward her. Yet the ending contains a promise that the unfortunate characters might achieve some semblance of decent living after all.
Working with a completely non-professional cast, allowed to improvise with their roles, Hammer has made a compelling film, which would hardly make a decent box office, but has already won a string of awards and critical acclaim, and is poised to win even more. Lol Crawley’s camera slowly lingers over people and objects, lit only by natural light, bringing on a feeling of desolation and loneliness. The total lack of humor or music creates a sense of hopelessness and bitter despair, which the excellent non-professionals sustain spectacularly. It is a tough story, and Hammer does not even try to make it viewer-friendly. Yet educated and patient audiences enjoy it and are more than rewarded for their effort. Hammer’s appropriately slow-paced direction and innovative narrative techniques introduce a distinct, new voice of the American independent cinema. However, bearing in mind his meticulous pre-production process comprising four months of rehearsals — the first one entirely devoted to his non-professional actors talking about themselves and the second to a form of group psychotherapy — it may take some time before we get another offering from this promising director. But, judging by his debut, the waiting would be well worth it.