A Sundance sensation rolls up his sleeves
starring Micheal J. Smith, Sr., Tarra Riggs, JimMyron Ross, Johnny McPhail
A man kills himself somewhere in the Mississippi Delta; his twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.) tries to do the same but fails. After a brief stay in hospital, Lawrence is sent home to contemplate the direction his life has gone. Meanwhile, Lawrence's sister-in-law (Tarra Riggs) and nephew (JimMyron Ross) struggle to survive on a minimum-wage income. At first glance, this scenario feels almost hopelessly generic--though the long, meditative shots across empty landscapes and drained performances from non-actors serve to remind of a Bresson film. What finally makes Ballast so uniquely fascinating is how it seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic land, with the initial suicide the atomic bomb that transforms its inhabitants into defeated shells given to moments of hatred and violence without ever really understanding their own motives. (Scenes in which Lawrence raids a grocery store certainly make end-of-the-world comparisons inevitable.) Drugs and attempted suicide are not exactly ways to pass the time in Ballast, nor are they even treated as logical escapes from such hellish surroundings. They are simply the only constants in a world from which there doesn't appear to be any escape.
Ballast is well worth a look for its dignified portrayal of poverty and desperation, and of how their attendant problems tend to form a vicious cycle of silent, festering madness--but, ironically (or appropriately) enough, it starts to sputter around the hour mark, once its characters begin picking up the pieces to rebuild their lives. The film certainly leaves plenty for the viewer to figure out on his own, complete with the dichotomy of journeys vs. destinations in the elusive search for better tomorrows. Yet for a movie that thrives on such an ambiguous setting, Ballast is curiously compelled to provide concrete answers to questions it should leave a little more open-ended. And its continued reliance on defeated, contemplative stares comes across as fatuous and proselytizing in a Sullivan's Travels kind of way. While Ballast is quite obviously a labour of love and the work of a preternatural talent, a more judicious hand in the editing room, particularly as applied to its last fifteen minutes, would have helped immensely.-IP
November 2, 2008|Ballast director/producer Lance Hammer isn't really the scruffy outsider that photos out of Sundance had led me to believe--at least, not in demeanour. Indeed, sporting a clean-shaven face and a soft, folksy tone of voice, he's a very polite fellow who just happens to have given the studio system a pass in favour of self-distributing his fascinating directorial debut. Hammer occasionally borders on a somewhat distracting formality, but that's only because he has very specific ideas about his film and wants to make sure that you understand them in their totality. (He expresses genuine regret upon confirming that I had watched the film on a DVD screener instead of on the big screen.) His quiet manner belies a fierce stubbornness, an admirable quality in an artist of his budding stature; here's a man who knows exactly what he wants from his cinematic career and is more than eager to expound on the present and future of distribution, not to mention his place in it. (The corners cut and chances taken in the promotion of Ballast are readily apparent--the film's advertising budget is, apparently, so low that this interview was conducted at my local ad agency's very own offices in downtown Boston instead of the Four Seasons Hotel, where movie press tours are traditionally hosted.) Near the end of our discussion, I threw a few intentional curveballs to better assess his opinion the overall quality of independent film in the United States, but in retrospect, I wish I had challenged him a little more on his rather bleak views of the mainstream market and, moreover, the very future of cinema itself.