Ballast drops you in the midst of life unfolding for three people -- a troubled boy, his put-upon mother and a man grieving the death of a brother -- in the wintry desolation of the Mississippi Delta. Their entwined stories involve some weighty issues, including suicide and drug addiction, but writer-director Lance Hammer displays remarkable restraint. In lesser hands, Ballast easily could have lapsed into heart-on-its-sleeve melodrama. As it is, the movie reveals plenty of heart, but its resonance comes devoid of cheap sentimentality. The only thing cheap about this extraordinary film, in fact, is its budget.
Ballast joins a growing number of independently made pictures concerned with people relegated to the extreme margins of society (Wendy and Lucy, Chop Shop, Frozen River, etc). Hammer, however, doesn't dwell on the poverty of his characters. They are obviously poor, but he takes their socioeconomic status at face value, resisting shots of bare cupboards and the like. Even the bleak environs of the Delta, among the most economically depressed regions of the country, are secondary to the quiet revelations that emerge from the characters' interactions.
How these people gradually reveal themselves is central to Ballast's brilliance. In some ways, 12-year-old James (JimMyron Ross) is like most boys his age. He likes watching cartoons and is addicted to his Xbox. But James is also under the spell of a decidedly more sinister addiction: crack cocaine. He owes money to drug dealers. James' response is to rob at gunpoint Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), a heavyset bear of a man mourning the recent suicide of his twin brother, Darius. Lawrence is not fazed by the threat of death. When Darius died, Lawrence -- who lived next door to his brother -- tried to kill himself. Lawrence gives James what few dollars he has in his wallet.
The boy then uses the gun to scare off the drug dealers, but the miscalculation only serves to makes him their prime target. After a scary confrontation, James' hard-working single mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), resolves that she and her son need a place to hide.
Their destination is the shack owned by Marlee's ex-husband and James' father: the recently deceased Darius. With measured pace, the film uncovers the complicated motives and histories that ensnare Marlee and Lawrence, while James' future hangs in the balance.
Ballast is steeped in the cinema of neo-realism. Handheld camerawork by talented cinematographer Lol Crawley lends the proceedings a lean, gritty milieu. There are lots of shots looking through car windshields at the barren landscape. Music is almost nonexistent. The choppy film editing, also handed by Hammer, deftly underscores the characters' level of disengagement and entropy - but the end result is curiously exhilarating.
Hammer opted for a number of nonprofessional actors, and the gambit pays off. Ross gives James an awkwardness that belies his tough-kid actions; just the way he holds the gun, as if it is some magic badge, is revealing. As Lawrence, Smith is a sympathetic, gentle giant who harbors more ambivalence than he initially appears. Best of all is Riggs, who is an actor by trade, and it shows in her raw, mesmerizing performance.
Ballast performs the remarkable feat of crafting a rich, character-driven drama that packs an emotional wallop without theatrics. A favorite at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the movie is almost actively anti-dramatic, and yet it is wholly absorbing. Interestingly, Ballast is even somewhat traditionalist in the things it embraces -- hard work, self-sufficiency, family, compassion, hope. But how it gets those virtues is anything but traditional.
This high-definition digital transfer, presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 is a wonderful showcase of Crawley's stripped-down but beautiful cinematography.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is solid, if unremarkable. There is modest use of rear speakers, with no problems of distortion or drop-out. Optional subtitles are available in Spanish, French and English.
A three-part Making of: Scene Development (37:43 total running time) boasts fascinating rehearsal footage of scenes that are then contrasted with the final version captured on film. Viewers can watch each section separately or opt for the "play all" function.
Also included are a theatrical trailer and a pull-out two-page written essay by film scholar Amy Taubin.
Ballast is a spellbinding indie that wrings emotional honesty from deceptively spare filmmaking. First-time director Lance Hammer presents us with interesting, richly drawn characters that make for a satisfying cinematic experience. Highly recommended.