Feature film debuts are so often about flash and pizazz — a young director wanting to make their mark by piling on as many visual flourishes or gimmicks as possible. So it's bracing to come across something like writer-director Lance Hammer's exactingly constructed, strikingly photographed, deliberately paced Ballast, which feels like a shiny Sacagawea dollar stumbled across in the dusty parking lot of a remote rural diner. A deserving winner of multiple festival awards, including Best Director and Cinematography prizes at Sundance earlier this year, Ballast is a lyrically told, moving story of underclass struggle, a film of a certain piece with David Gordon Green's George Washington, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and Enid Zentelis' Evergreen.
A tale of loss, resilience and rapprochement, Ballast unfolds in the crisp winter light of a small Mississippi Delta township. There, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), a single mother, struggles to scratch out a living for herself and her 12-year-old son, James (JimMyron Ross, above left), who's begun to succumb to influences of drugs and violence. When the opportunity to seek safe harbor at a new home arises, Marlee grabs it, even though the property is shared by Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, above right), her former brother-in-law. With circumstances thrusting them into proximity, a subtle interdependence and common purpose emerge for Marlee and Lawrence, as they tend to old wounds, test new waters and tentatively move forward.
Told in beautifully observed minimalist strokes, Ballast is all about fumbling toward forgiveness. Its performers are almost exclusively non-professionals, yet there's a quiet confidence and uniformity of purpose that informs the movie and holds it together during the tenuous, delicate first half-hour, which otherwise feels very much like discrete, stolen moments from some rural domestic surveillance footage. Slowly, though, a bigger picture develops. Lawrence is a twin, and so devastated by his brother's suicide that he tries to shoot himself during the film's opening minutes. In his nephew James, though, Lawrence sees the chance for a purpose and project greater than himself, or his workaday life at a convenience store.
What's perhaps most interesting is the level of non-showy authenticity that Ballast achieves, despite the fact that Hammer is a 40-something-year-old, Caucasian former architect and part-time art director from Southern California, while his subjects are African-American, and the Mississippi Delta a place that he's visited frequently but isn't from. Arthouse fans will be suitably impressed. And who knows — in a decade maybe Hammer, like Green, will be helming a Judd Apatow-produced comedy. One shouldn't count on it, though. For more information on the film, click here. (Alluvial Film Company, unrated, 96 minutes)