Winner of the directing and cinematography awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lance Hammer’s Ballast is a meticulous, artfully constructed piece of work that slowly draws you into its web, but leaves an “Is that all there is?” feeling due to a much too rushed wrapup.
The film opens with convenience store owner Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Jr.), devastated by the drug overdose death of his twin brother, attempting suicide. He fails, and while he’s in the hospital recuperating, the focus turns to 12-year-old James (JimMyron Ross), who is flirting with the gangbanger lifestyle. Hammer’s screenplay eventually reveals that James is Lawrence’s nephew, his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) separated from the now dead brother. Eventually the trio come together when Marlee, believing that her husband has deeded her his property—which includes the store and a house Lawrence is living in—decides she wants to sell everything. This naturally puts her in conflict with her brother-in-law, and it soon becomes evident that the two harbor longstanding resentments involving their relationship with each other and the dead brother.
But at a certain point in Ballast, Marlee and Lawrence begin to slowly reconcile. She takes over running the store when he reveals that, mentally, he simply can’t do it anymore. And they decide on a joint plan to rescue James from the bad influences he’s hanging out with, which includes home-schooling the child.
Ballast is told at a slow, leisurely pace, each shot obviously well-thought-out and meaningful. The film takes place in a rural part of Mississippi where poverty seems to be endemic, drug dealing rampant, and possibilities extremely limited. In this atmosphere, Lawrence is practically a rich man, thanks to his successful store and other properties, but he is dying inside, barely functional after the death of his sibling. His slow, bear-like movements provide an interesting contrast to Marlee, a former dope addict filled with rage who is trying desperately to hold onto a dead-end job and keep her child from harm.
This all adds up to a film that insinuates itself into the consciousness, creating an overpowering sense of reality filtered through a stylized, and extremely artsy, sensibility. The terrifically earthy performances of the non-pro actors certainly have a lot to do with this, as is Hammer’s penchant for wordless shots of the flat, forbidding terrain, and his tendency to let faces speak for themselves.
It’s certainly not hard to see why Ballast emerged from Sundance with such acclaim, but the film has a fatal flaw—an ending (no spoilers) that comes much too quickly and leaves an awful lot unexplained. It’s not that Hammer needed to dot all his i’s and cross all his t’s, but Ballast’s finale takes ambiguity to a new, and very frustrating, level. It’s an impressive directorial debut that will leave viewers speechless at the end—not necessarily in a good sense.