A Young Man Searches For An Anchor In This Haunting, Poignant Movie
James (JimMyron Ross) is barelypast puberty, but there's something ancient about the Egyptian planes of his face peering out from the sheltering hood of a black down jacket. His ancestors might have walked the banks of the Nile, but he's spent his childhood prowling the flooded wasteland of another river delta--the empty fields of rural Mississippi. He's not a feral kid--he has a mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), who loves him and provides him a place to eat Fruity Pebbles in front of the TV, but she's away cleaning urinals during the day. Left to his own devices, he skulks around the periphery of the big kids, the ones with diamond studs in their ears and tattoos on their pecs. The big kids have taken away his Xbox, and when he tried to stop them, they punched him in the face. So it makes sense to call their bluff by brandishing a stolen gun at them. Big kids aren't so tough when you fire a weapon at them. What happens if he hits one of them? Even worse, what happens if he misses?
The rural Mississippi of Ballast is that kind of place, a nowhereland of precarious poverty where every person is one misstep away from disaster. This isn't the dusty, sunset-kissed romantic view of the Deep South, full of juke joints, fresh peaches, and sweet iced tea. Here everything is a muddy shade of blue-gray, the TV and the space heater are always on, and venturing outside means slogging through barren fields toward shotgun shacks that all look the same, inside--wood paneling, baroque velour sofa, dispirited mattresses with mismatched sheets--and out. There's one convenience store in town, but it's been closed for a few days. When a neighbor comes to check on the proprietors, he finds one of them dead in his bed. A few minutes later, the other proprietor, Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), goes next door and shoots himself.
Lawrence doesn't shoot himself in the head, but to say more would destroy the natural, nearly ecosystemic rhythm of watching this movie unfold around its characters. Ballast has a documentary feel positioned somewhere between Breathless and an episode of COPS, so much so that it's a shock to see crew members such as carpenters and visual-effects supervisors in the end credits. Writer/director Lance Hammer may use a handheld camera, natural light, and diegetic music, but he finds a fly-on-the-wall style that never draws attention to the artifice itself--Dogme without the dogma. Watching hundreds of movies a year is a sure way to inure oneself against the shock of gunplay, but when James brandishes a weapon on a man much bigger than himself, there's an involuntary sucking in of breath in the audience, as if it's 1903 again and the man at the end of The Great Train Robbery has pulled his pistol on us.
And yet, for a movie with such shocking moments, so much of Ballast is about emptiness--watching, waiting, and hearing what has gone unsaid. But unlike some moviemakers who confuse patient observation with a license to be as boring as possible, Hammer trims his footage in a quick, intuition-heavy pattern of edits, so that a 10-day hospital stay is whittled down to the patient's eyes opening and a shuffling, humiliating walk down the hall--gown flapping, orderly at arm's reach--full of not only the passage of time but emasculation, mortality, despair, and fatigue. Don't be afraid of this movie because you can't stand another downer about poor people in the South. Blockbusters full of juicy bosoms and car explosions don't speed by as quickly or hold the eye as completely as this empathic, wise, and deeply profound movie does.
A ballast is a weight added to an object in order to improve its stability. What is the ballast here? Is it Marlee, and the saving gravity she tries to exert on her wayward son James? Is it how the death of one man removes the balance from another man's life? Or is it how the suffocating grief of suicide forces all three survivors to find some way to float above it all, or perish? Hammer leaves his question unanswered, but the movie's final, precisely measured scene makes his meaning clear. Balance is not the same as equilibrium, it says with poetic grace, but anything's better than capsizing.