Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008): USA
Reviewed by Byron Potau
Ballast is a film so quiet, so hypnotic in its eloquence it would be easy to fail to see its brilliance. It doesn’t come at you with explosions, CGI, or chase scenes. It doesn’t even have a music score to tell you when you should start feeling something. First time director Lance Hammer takes the risk that you can figure these things out yourself without the usual prodding from the filmmaker.
In the opening minutes Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Jr.) attempts suicide after his twin brother, Darius, has intentionally overdosed on pills. A brief sequence shows Lawrence’s rush to the hospital, briefing by doctors, and release from the hospital. He is healed physically and returns home to the small two house property that he shared with his brother, but is an emotional wreck hardly able to say two words to his neighbor who has been looking out for his dog while he has been gone.
James (Jim Myron Ross), Darius’s son, lives with his mom, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), who makes just enough at her job to support the two of them. James, approximately fourteen years old, had not seen his father since he had walked out on him and his mom, later finding out from Lawrence that his mom had gotten his father’s visitation rights revoked, but as with everything in this film there are two sides to every story and rarely a simple answer to anything. Circumstances force Marlee and James to move onto the property with Lawrence, Darius having left his house to Marlee along with half the convenience store he had run with Lawrence. From here the three characters interact, finding a balance with each other in the wake of Darius’s suicide.
The film is full of subtle, low key moments that could risk boring the viewer if they were not handled as sensitively and artfully as Hammer does here. A scene where James, bored and looking for something to do, is throwing a shoe up in the air like a ball and swinging at it with a bat is quietly amusing and revealing when it could have been ridiculous filler. Hammer establishes a consistency in mood and never departs from it. His choices of non professional actors, natural lighting, and, especially, the decision not to use any non diegetic sound create a quiet and methodical atmosphere that allows the tension, angst, confusion, and warmth of the characters to emerge. The dialogue is sparse and the simplest words hang in the air for a moment, giving us time to digest them before moving on, while the acting is collectively brilliant and naturalistic, adding to the authenticity of the entire film, and Lol Crawley’s cinematography captures it all beautifully. Lastly, the editing, also by Hammer, uses mostly, if not entirely, straight cuts, but the result is a smooth, gentle flow rather than any jarring juxtaposition which is in keeping with the lyrical flow of the film. This is a very sensitive and thoughtful film that justly took home directing and cinematography honors from the Sundance Film Festival and should be an experience any patient viewer will find rewarding.