The unorthodox, extraordinarily powerful family drama Ballast is on a limited release in the UK, finally seeing the light of day here three years after its creation, and subsequent success at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up awards for Directing and Cinematography.
Set in the lush, crumbling expanse of the Mississippi Delta, Ballast opens with the immediate aftermath of a suicide. While his deceased twin brother moulders in the bedroom, Lawrence (Micheal Smith Sr.) withdraws into a state of mute shock, unable to communicate. Lawrence himself attempts suicide by gunshot, and the story unfolds with his gradual recovery.
We are also introduced to James (JimMyron Ross) a sullen, uncommunicative child who lives with mother Marlee (Tarra Giggs), a cleaner. James, who can’t be any older than 12 or 13, owes money to a gang of local hoodlums, and tries to raise the required funds by systematically robbing the ineffectual, depressed Lawrence at gunpoint. Only after a while is the connection between James and Lawrence made clear: the dead man is James’ dad, his mother the bereaved, estranged partner.
A cursory reading of the plot could lead one to believe that the filmmakers have strayed into the crass misery-porn territory of Monster’s Ball or Precious; films that belong to what I like to call the “And then…” genre, as in: “And then this terrible thing happens. And then that terrible thing happens”. However, you needn’t worry. What unfolds is a gentle, deeply moving drama that travels at a languorous pace, unpacking the baggage of a tangled family situation in a refreshingly honest fashion.
Ballast has a woozy, discombobulated feel, playing out in a thick fug of grief; not caterwauling, scene-stealing, Oscar-winning grief, but the real stuff – erratic behaviour, complex emotional shifts and painful inarticulacy. Isolation and dislocation are a constant feature, inherent in the stark contrast between Lawrence’s towering, imposing physical presence and his meek fragility, Marlee’s exhausted, weathered face and the friendless James’ solitary bike rides.
The beauty of the film is in its formal and thematic simplicity. Yes, it is often gorgeous to look at (British cinematographer Lol Crawley creates one stunning widescreen landscape after another), but there are no flourishes, no big speeches and no loud bangs (in fact there is no musical score whatsoever), just a group of ordinary, damaged people dealing with the vagaries of life the best that they can. First-time director Lance Hammer opts for an appropriately austere visual style, utilizing a palette of lush greens, steely blues and silvers. The devil is in the detail, and Hammer has a keen eye for striking imagery which sticks in your head long after the credits have rolled; the bloodied wall from Lawrence’s suicide attempt which remains unattended to, the plastic deer which stare out eerily across the front lawn, an abandoned DJ booth in the middle of nowhere.
In keeping with the theme of emotional repression, Ballast feels physicially claustrophobic in spite of the vast expanses of the Mississippi landscape. Characters appear to drive for miles across acres of land but never really arrive anywhere. In this respect, it is an anti-road movie. Furthermore, the film cleverly uses its location to comment on its characters’ interior lives. Spatially, the two houses they live in are directly opposite each other, but their lives, initially, are far apart.
Ballast is original and refreshing, but not without precedent. In much the same way that fans of doom-rock purveyors Interpol have long become accustomed to the band’s comparisons with Joy Division, admirers of Ballast will have to get used to their film mentioned in the same breath Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and more recently, David Gordon Greene’s George Washington. All three are stately, moving studies of blighted black lives in the American south, and could almost be viewed as a trilogy, sharing an unhurried air and a touching belief in the dignity of humanity.