EmptySundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- In "Ballast," three people struggle mightily against one another and against their own worst instincts, bred out of deep distrust and bad memories, to reach a kind of equilibrium where they might live calm, productive lives. Lance Hammer's feature debut is gutsy -- gutsy for what he wants to achieve and for how he goes about it. The film is set in bleak circumstances in a bleak township and comes at viewers in a style more familiar to European art house patrons than American moviegoers. Finally, few white filmmakers, even veterans, have portrayed an African-American experience with so little self-consciousness as Hammer.
"Ballast" necessarily limits itself to festival play and theatrical showings for those eager to catch a new and clearly talented filmmaker's first work. The film plays in dramatic competition at Sundance.
The film, which Hammer wrote, directed and edited, has an austere, rigorous yet fully engaged aesthetic. Opening credits don't get more minimal than this: During an initial sequence, only the word "Ballast" appears onscreen. Scenes that follow are short and to the point. Editing compacts the time even within these scenes. Angles are carefully chosen. Only ambient sounds and no music appear on the soundtrack. Characters speak, at least initially, more with body language than dialogue.
In the rural Mississippi Delta in the bitter cold of winter, a suicide throws a delicate balance among three people out of whack. After sitting with the body for an unknown time, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) shoots himself in despair over his twin brother's death. When he comes home from the hospital, he doesn't even bother to reopen a small convenience store he operated with his twin.
For the brother's 12-year-son James (Jim Myron Ross and his long-estranged girlfriend or wife, Marlee (Tarra Riggs) -- the movie is vague about this -- the death may have this blessing: At the last minute, the brother wrote a letter giving the mother and child the house they live in. Lawrence pins the note on their front door.
But the legality of the note is unclear. And how Marlee would sell the house is even less clear. Hammer slyly shoots the early scenes to disguise a key fact: Lawrence and Marlee's houses occupy the same property with an imaginary Berlin Wall between them.
James is getting in over his head with drugs and the wrong people. But he is still a kid at heart. Marlee, who is surprisingly unaware of this, works long hours scrubbing toilets and still has little money. Her hatred for her ex extends to the brother who looks exactly like him.
The situation causes a necessary breach in the Berlin Wall, but only animosity and recriminations ensue. James likes pointing Lawrence's gun, which he stole, at his uncle whenever he demands money. Lawrence doesn't much care if he shoots.
Hammer gradually lets a glance of sunlight into the gloom, but its power can't be checked. The three have no choice but to deal with one another. It's not easy, and the final note is not that of peace but of a tenuous truce.
Working with non-pro actors, Hammer pulls authentic performances from the trio that are at times almost too painful to witness. The hurts run deep. The bullet hole in Lawrence's chest is nothing compared to these wounds. And yet "Ballast" is an optimistic film: The sun finally does break through.
Alluvial Film Co.
Director-screenwriter-editor: Lance Hammer
Producers: Lance Hammer, Nina Parikh
Executive producers: Andrew Adamson, John J. Hammer, Mark Johnson, Aimee Shieh
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Jerel Levanway
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin
Lawrence: Michael J. Smith Sr.
James: Jim Myron Ross
Marlee: Tarra Riggs
John: Johnny McPhail
Running time -- 96 minutes
No MPAA rating