It is winter in the Mississippi Delta, and the fields are fallow under dead skies and barren trees thrust up stark from the muck. If it were summer, the sky would be clear and the crops would be green and the soil would burn with life, but summer is far away. A boy moves across the mud and water, and he runs toward a flock of resting birds, making them jump to frightened flight tilting through the gray light, just to make them do it, just so something else knows he's alive.
Lance Hammer's Ballast, premiering at the Sundance film festival, is already earning comparisons to the work of European filmmakers like The Dardenne Brothers and Christian Mungiu -- the camera is hand-held, the emotions are at arm's length. Working with non-professional actors, using available light and actual locations, Hammer shows us a world and the people who live there. In time, we figure out how these people are connected, and how they fail to connect. Lawrence (Micheal Smith, Jr.) sits in a darkened home, silent, as a neighbor checks in because Lawrence and his brother haven't been seen in a while, while Marlee (Tarra Riggs) works hard to provide a life for her son James (Jimmyron Ross), even as he drifts towards trouble. There's a link between these three characters, but we are left to figure it out over time, just as they have to figure it out for themselves.
People mock 'Sundance films,' or joke that "'Sundance' spelled backwards is 'massive depression.'" The reality of the matter is that if mainstream film offers us escape, independent cinema offers a necessary escape from escapism. Movie characters don't seem to worry about paying the bills; most moviegoers do. But films like Ballast -- concerned with struggle, loss, poverty and wounded hearts -- are easily ignored and dismissed. Bruised from a fight, Marlee gets fired from her custodial job because her appearance would upset customers. She rages and despairs at the loss of a bad, low-paying job, because it's all she had, her firing literally adding insult to injury: "Like the motherf***ers even know that I'm there! I'm invisible to them." And she is invisible to them; Ballast doesn't just confront us with her howling pain, but also with our role in it.
Hammer's use of real locations and available light is also part of Ballast's tense, insidious intimacy. The emotional terrain of wounded feelings and harsh resentments is set against a physical terrain of barren fields and shabby rooms, cluttered roadside grocery stores, and fluorescent-lit offices. Hammer's filmmaking style may evoke European films, but it also speaks to a very American sort of Southern minimalism seen in the early work of David Gordon Green, or in the films of Terrence Malick.
Ballast is less concerned with unfolding a storyline than in shaping a tone, and that may -- no, that will -- alienate some viewers, as will the thick air of struggle wrapped around the characters. The characters in Ballast can't change the past; worse, though, they can't conceive of how they might change the future. And Hammer essentially dares the audience to care about his characters: Lawrence is silent and still, burdened with depression and grief; Marlee is exhausted and harried, raising a son on her own, constantly asking where all the money seems to go and where more money will come from; James commits small crimes and large errors in judgment, desperate to matter, and well aware that he does not.
Hammer's prior film career includes credits for visual effects work on films like Practical Magic and Batman and Robin; a cynic might dismiss Ballast's flat, deliberate style as overcompensation, or a kind of penance. At the same time, Ballast never stoops to explain itself or its characters; we watch; we learn. We see the characters in their anger; we see them in tentative moments of forgiveness. Both the script and the performances keep audiences at a distance; Hammer deliberately avoids scenes or moments that would make sympathy or identification easy.
Ballast has already been selected for the Berlin Film Festival's slate this year; at the same time, it's hard to imagine Ballast having much of a life outside the film festival circuit -- it's slow, it's harsh, it's concerned with struggling, sad characters. The mainstream audience, looking for entertainment and escape, shuns movies like Ballast. Cineastes, looking for an American film that offers something on-screen other than glossy consumerist fantasies, will embrace Ballast with the ardent fervor of a drowning victim offered a rope. Hammer's film, on its own merits, makes me hope that between those extremes there's the space and chance for him to craft another film.
(For more on Ballast, see Cinematical's interview with Lance Hammer.)