Ballast is a film without a flaw and this is in large part due to the fact debut feature writer/director Lance Hammer doesn’t allow for one. Hammer, serving as his own editor, has cut together one of the leanest films I have ever seen and he leaves very little fat as I can’t imagine a single moment of screen time is wasted. This is a film without a score and if something is seen on screen it exists either to move the story along or evoke some level of emotion or understanding to the viewer. This may seem like an obvious decision on the part of the director, but you tell me the last time you saw a movie as tight as this one without any fluff to be mentioned.
Set in a Mississippi Delta township, Hammer takes a page out of the book of UK helmer Mike Leigh and worked out a scenario with his actors and never distributed an established script. For the cast he used residents of the Delta townships where the scenes were recorded and many had no prior film acting experience. It’s authentic filmmaking at its core and it was certainly a risk, but one that paid off big.
The film revolves around three lives affected by the death of one man. We follow a single mother working to provide for her son and a man we know at the outset only as Lawrence whose recent family death has left him in a state of shock as the film opens up. Ballast is a film about the future at the expense of the past. It’s a slice of life story and it should be required viewing for anyone hoping to ever make a film. It’s quiet and introspective and is sure to affect each audience member differently. It’s authenticity is undeniable and is one hell of a testament to good storytelling.
There is nothing manipulative about the story, it simply exists for you to judge and decipher as you will. If someone asked me why this film was made, I would tell them quite plainly, “To tell a good story,” and at that it succeeds. You may believe a story about three people living on the Mississippi Delta is another one of those stories you just don’t want to hear. That’s understandable, it doesn’t involve alien transforming robots, MI6 spies or even have a masked character in tights, but trust me, once it is over you will want to show it to someone else. It’s an affecting piece of material that exudes life. Along with Laurent Cantet’s The Class, it’s one of the most authentic films I have seen this year.
Despite being made up of actors with little to no screen experience you would never be able to guess it. For 12-year-old JimMyron Ross and Micheal J. Smith Sr. this is their first time ever acting in a feature film, but if you had told me that in advance I wouldn’t have been able to point them out. You never get the feeling any of these people are acting. Beyond those two, one of the greatest performances in the piece comes from Johnny McPhail who plays a neighbor we only come to know as John, a role in a typical film that would have been expanded to become a nuisance neighbor meddling where he didn’t belong. Instead he acts as neighbors do, for the most part he stays out of the way. But being the film is set in a small town he holds some sense of responsibility and humanity to the people he knows and offers his services, all the while remaining a respectful distance.
Ballast softly washes over you as it moves at a calm and reasonable pace. The story avoids any unnecessary juxtaposition and is to be applauded for it. It takes its time in telling its story, but considering it only runs 96 minutes you will be surprised at just how much story Hammer manages to pack in. You will survive some serious ups and downs and the lack of dialogue and insistence on the audience’s emotional connection to the characters and story will have you wondering where the last 96 minutes went as you want just a few minutes more.