"Ballast" is Lance Hammer's first feature film. It is a very personal, intimate movie, shot entirely hand-held and given no music -- but don't dare call the film quiet. It is set in the foggy and damp Mississippi delta and stars three people who have never acted before, and you could call it tonal, poetic, an art film, or a film without focus on narrative. These are all true, but what is so great about the film -- and what gives it so much mainstream appeal -- is that plenty of interesting things are always happening in the action and the emotion of the characters. Mr. Hammer wrote the film, threw the script out, let the characters emerge from the actors, shot thousands of feet of film, then spent two years editing the film down to its leanest, most distilled self. This approach had a wonderful effect: an artful, unconventional film was created and all the drifting, unfocused, dare I say boring storytelling of your average "art film" was totally eschewed. The result is intensely emotional, gives you plenty think about, and a pleasure to watch.
The film is about the salvation of a child. Micheal J. Smith Jr. plays Lawrence, a man mourning his brother's suicide, Tarra Riggs plays Marlee, Lawrence's ex-sister-in-law, and in the middle young JimMyron Ross plays Marlee's son James. The film starts off with two unconnected stories: Lawrence's life effectively shuts down after his brother commits suicide, and James gets into deeper and deeper trouble with drugs and guns. This all changes when Marlee moves onto Lawrence's property with James, believing that her dead ex-husband left the houses to her in a suicide note.
To describe the movie like this, in a basic synopsis, does no justice to the myriad relationships functioning throughout the story. Nor does it give you a sense of how nicely they evolve, or how many different feelings the audience is allowed in every scene. There is so much going on here that it seems Mr. Hammer has not quite figured out how to explain himself to potential audiences, and this is unfortunate. I watched the trailer twice before actually seeing the film, and I had no idea what the film was about. I knew it looked beautiful, and it certainly lived up to this expectation, but it also looked like a film in which nothing actually happens. On the contrary, there are almost too many doors to enter this house from: animals, economy, education, family, emergence, gloaming, hope. "Ballast" is surely a miniature epic.
The drive of the film is a realist approach to storytelling. Mr. Hammer is less interested in conventional character arcs and three-act structure, and instead makes sure that each scene feels absolutely right in relation to every other scene around it. This means that if the audience meets a character, it mirrors the feeling that one would get when you meet a person in real life. There are certain scenes that achieve this emotional closeness to a stunning degree. When James sulks in his bed, entirely unable to speak to his mother about his now-overwhelming problems, it feels exactly like this conversation is really happening. When James's drug dealers drop out of the story, the rest of the film is filled with this pervasive threat that they could return at any moment. It is tense, sometimes breathtaking to wait for these people to rear their heads again, and the second half of "Ballast" lets this feeling sit underneath every scene.
What I find so interesting about the movie is that in order to achieve this realism, a very particular structure had to be put in place. This is not a movie that just floats through people's lives, or tries to force us to see the beauty in little moments or nature or whatever silly thing a filmmaker wants to focus on. I would not apply those art-house euphemisms "meditative" or "deliberately paced" that make those purest of the pure, the most snobby of the snobs cream themselves with the anticipation of audience torture. The movie wasn't even a challenge to sit through! Mr. Hammer's realism meets his story movement half-way, so we get the best of both worlds: a small budget, idiosyncratic movie that doesn't even need any lights to get the interiority of the characters across, combined with a skilled use of some conventional narrative techniques to keep everything lean and interesting. This may sound like blasphemy to an indie movie crowd, but on the contrary the two sides work incredibly well together. The same was said in praise of William Faulkner -- he gives you the interior along with the exterior.
With "Ballast," Mr. Hammer has created a film that is both an emotional and intellectual experience for the audience. It is a film that feels right, and feels constantly, but also requires the audience to think about what each silence means, what each character is going through. Our thoughts and feelings toward each character change as the story moves along, and I am left with a single question. Is the filmmaker moving toward a film that attempts to be entirely emotional, only felt and not thought about, or is he looking for a balance between the two spheres? If the former, his next film will perhaps fail to reach this goal, but be interesting nonetheless. If the latter, "Ballast" has already successfully found this balance, and it is fragile, kinetic, and robust.