Ballast

03/07/2010

U.S.A. / 2008 / English

Directed by Lance Hammer

With Michael J. Smith Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs

Still from 'Ballast'An adolescent boy runs towards a cold marsh inhabited by birds. Bemused by his own power, he stops to watch the ensuing flight as the birds flock upwards, blotting out the sky. Like this brief confusion of the tranquil air, so too is Ballast driven by explosions within an impassive calm, quiet ripples that register like far-off tremors. Its characters move about in a territory somewhere between intense concentration and a somnolent daze. Set in a wintry rural Mississippi, the film is a hushed and yet deeply resonant portrayal of renewal following tragedy.

At the start of the film the body of James’ estranged father, Darius, is lying in bed after an apparent suicide. James’ uncle, the hulking and soft-spoken Lawrence, nearly comatose in his mourning, walks outside and into his own house next door, and shoots himself. He survives when an elderly neighbor comes to his aid, but it is quite a long time before he regains the words to connect with anyone, and it is uncertain whether the spark of life will ever illuminate his doleful eyes. Lawrence is clearly sunken and destroyed, and considerably past the unseemly excesses of foundering. He is unusual because, when he cannot think of anything to say, he simply doesn’t. Having lost his other half in his identical twin Darius, he is so burdened by aimlessness and what may or may not be crippling guilt, that it seems difficult for him to even lift his head to meet another person’s gaze.

Still from 'Ballast'James, who has been taken out of school for unknown reasons, meanwhile has been buying crack from some older boys, and winds up owing them a great deal of money. Having stolen Lawrence’s gun, he begins brandishing it in self-defense, but this only invites further retribution from the drug dealers. He also uses the weapon to hold up Lawrence for funds. Although the man could not possibly be afraid of it, he dutifully hands over the money he has, engaging the boy in the pantomime of robbery out of compassion and curiosity. When Marlee, James’ mother, is laid off from her job, she decides to lay claim to the potentially sellable property that Darius owned, and to take over the convenience store that he and Lawrence ran jointly. Lawrence’s reaction to her intentions is characteristically laissez-faire, and she at first finds this suspect, as her history with her husband and his brother had been, up until this point, so tumultuous. The newfound interest that Lawrence develops in hers and James’ lives, while unexpected, is an idea to which Marlee gradually warms, seeing it as a chance to make a better life.

Ballast, being a film made by a white director and with a cast mostly comprised of black non-actors, invites comparisons to David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000). But whereas the latter film is stylish and infused with an ungainly present-time nostalgia, Hammer’s film is uncompromisingly morose, and its naturalism largely confounds any guesswork as to its underlying intent. What is apparent is that it is about the synergy between the characters, and how they tease out one another’s feelings, which come to the surface with all of the haphazardness and fluidity of everyday life. The unalloyed atmosphere gives a chilly immediacy to to what we see, shrouded in nothing besides roomtone and the buzzing of appliances, affected by little more than the handheld camera and a depth of field that renders all of the out-of-focus elements an impressionistic wash. Abrupt editing advances the plot in fragmented leaps, with an emotional bent. Everything about it suggests the furtive inner thoughts of the characters, who wish to deny, avoid, or simply be somewhere altogether further along in their story than they are. The resultant melancholy from being so trapped is at all times tangible, while the narrative seems perpetually caught in the wake of their yearnings. Marlee wants something good to come out of her husband’s death, to possibly foster some growth or prosperity for herself and James, but this of course forces her to confront the remnants of his life and what their relationship had been. Hammer’s script touches on the pathological and psychic connection that had existed between Lawrence and Darius but the idea is not developed enough to go on to explain his current state, and functions more to contrast with James’ lack of connection to anyone.

Still from 'Ballast'The young man, James, spends much of the film gazing out at fields, watching a train fly by, watching the sun set. Meanwhile at home he is absorbed by cartoons or video games – his life is hermetic, intently solitary. In one memorable scene he enters an abandoned house, playing in the stacked refuse as though it were heaps of snow. The setting of the film has something of a post-disaster landscape about it, desolate and eerily deserted. The property that Lawrence inhabits has all the loneliness and unflinching, florescent light of a gas station. We see very few people besides the main characters, but there is a great deal of evidence of people: trash-strewn alleys, the twisted frameworks of old cars, the toilets that Marlee scrubs in order to make ends meet. Everything feels distanced from us, as though it has all just come and gone; rain has already fallen and created mud; a man has died and the after effects pursue his family in spite of their remoteness; a woman has already wept over her son’s misfortunes and resolved to persevere. While the characters search for balance in the tumult, emotions detonate quietly, the repercussions carefully measured.

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