Writer/director Lance Hammer's stunning debut feature, Ballast, was a big winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival (it took the Cinematography and Directing Awards), and frankly, that's a bit of a surprise. It's the kind of quiet, contemplative film that frequently did well in the early years of the festival, back when it was still called the Utah/US Film Festival and before it became a Hilton-infested gear in the Hollywood machine. It's more akin to Killer of Sheep than Little Miss Sunshine, a deliberately paced tone poem that's heavy on mood and light on plot--which, I would imagine, will turn off a great many viewers.
The story, set in a nearly uninhabited rural area of the Mississippi Delta, concerns the (off-screen) suicide of a young man and the three lives that collide afterwards. His twin brother, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Sr.), who co-owns a convenience story and property with him, is clearly destroyed by the event, attempting to take his own life during the film's opening passages. His estranged son James (Johnny McPhail) and James's mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) have got problems of their own; Marlee is struggling to keep her low-paying job, while James is circling a more dangerous life of drugs and guns.
A simple synopsis like that makes Ballast sound like a movie you've seen a hundred times before and would never want to see again. It's quite the opposite. Again, what makes Hammer's film so notable and unique is its atmosphere, the style in which this potentially clichéd story is told. Cinematographer Lol Crawley's handheld camerawork is off-the-cuff but never sloppy, lending an air of documentary intimacy to the proceedings. Hammer's screenplay emphasizes naturalism over melodrama; there's no easy storytelling and astonishingly little in the way of exposition, allowing events to unfold organically and forcing audiences to pay attention and make connections on their won. In fact, there are long stretches with no dialogue at all, and the conversations that do occur feel unrehearsed and lived-in.
Hammer also takes great pains as a director to put new twists on potentially pat situations. James's attempts to wield Lawrence's handgun, both with Lawrence and with the drug-dealing teens he owes money to, are awkward and clumsy; these scenes feel like real life happening, as opposed to the John Woo-style arsenal theatrics that invade far too many indie flicks. Lawrence and Marlee share a moment late in the film that starts to spin their relationship into a different direction, but Hammer stops it in its tracks--that's what would happen in a movie, and only in a movie. And Hammer's cut-to-black, open-ended closing may recall No Country For Old Men, but in the right ways; it is a pitch-perfect final snapshot that tells us everything and nothing, simultaneously.
Performances are mostly top-notch, with special praise due to the heartbreakingly honest work by Smith, a lumbering bear of a man who has literally lost his other half. Riggs is a real find, handling a full gambit of emotions and never showing a strain. McPhail strikes a few false notes early in the film, but this is a difficult role for such a young actor, and he acquits himself nicely by the picture's end.
Make no mistake, Ballast is not a film for all tastes. Its emphasis on feeling over story will put off some viewers, as will its deliberate pace and heavy subtext. But for viewers who don't mind doing a bit of heavy lifting, who are willing to seek out a challenging film with moments of genuine beauty and grace, it's highly recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.