Don’t be fooled into thinking that the three years it has taken for Lance Hammer’s Sundance darling Ballast to hit our screens is any indication of its quality. This airy, quiet meditation on the struggle of three people to transcend abject poverty and unexpected loss will likely play as too dialled-down for many tastes, but persevering with it will reveal a rare, peculiar mystical quality, as well as an unexpectedly rather involving family drama.
Not really at all a typical tale of loss, this is a grim, moody look at the discontent mustered by a man, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Jr.), trying to cope with the recent suicide of his identical twin, Darius. Following a botched suicide attempt of his own, he reconnects with Darius’ estranged partner, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), and her son, Lawrence’s nephew, James (JimMyron Ross), as the three of them try to keep each other afloat amid their seemingly hopeless existence, eking out a living in the impoverished Mississippi delta.
While it was Winter’s Bone that racked up the plaudits and awards chatter, Ballast feels almost as potent in capturing the sheer depravity and downtrodden poverty of the Southern U.S., in which death, drug addiction and homelessness are all a far more pervasive threat than is even remotely imaginable by the majority of society. Of particular note is Lol Crawley’s evocative cinematography, capturing the stark, harsh landscapes with resounding precision, and ultimately helping convey visually the soul-decaying ennui which these characters are experiencing. Together, he and Hammer make us both see and feel the anguish.
Ballast will certainly require your patience, but its sharply-observed characters and setting make it well worth a watch. Forsaking the narrative typicality of heavy to-camera exposition, it talks more in location and faces than it does in words. Dialogues are sparse, instead the crushing dreariness with which everything unfolds is conveyed through drably-lit locations and weathered faces. It doesn’t want for humanity, though; after an incredibly subdued opening, the drama shifts to the would-be family unit of Lawrence, Marlee and James, as they try to rebuild their lives. Director Lance Hammer steers things confidently with an unmistakable neorealist tone, employing non-actors almost exclusively to startling effect. While the result is at times almost too mumblecore (the accents are thick and often tough to understand), it feels nothing if not absolutely authentic.
The chilly regard to character here has a haunting quality, where people seem like automatons going through the motions of life, afflicted by the strain of living in an impoverished part of the U.S. Particularly startling is the on-again-off-again relationship between Lawrence and James, with stifled dialogues creating an uneasy atmosphere which only makes the concluding scenes that much more engaging emotionally. The three central performances are particularly remarkable, wringing plenty of power from a set-up that could easily have become overly morose and mawkish in the wrong hands. The quiet power of the story speaks for itself, and rarely does it feel overplayed.
The notion of people somehow finding solace in their shared plights is a strange and compelling one, somehow lending hope to the stark situations the characters find themselves in. Hammer’s dedication to character keeps the various revelations and small moments rewarding to watch, though its subtle presentation is going to severely limit its appeal beyond the realm of film buffs.
Quietly compelling, well acted, and impressively shot, Ballast utilises a minimalist form to consider the insular nature of grief and depression as well as the dull grind of sleepy little towns, but its sparseness might find you scrambling to see where the points connect.
Ballast is in U.K. cinema’s now.