A slice, nay, a pound of life: VIFF # 1 – Ballast
Directed by Lance Hammer
With Michael J. Smith, Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs
A review by Nathan Douglas
Rating: **** (out of 4)
Let’s cut to the chase: Ballast is one of the best films of the year.
Immediately after seeing its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I wasn’t so sure of its greatness. The overall impact of the film was still fresh and overwhelming. Now, with a few days to fully process the film, my admiration for its achievement is greater than ever.
Rarely have I seen a film that fails to remind me that what I see before me is indeed a film, that what unfolds onscreen was made up and acted out by a group of people. Rarely have I felt so intimately invited into a life that is not my own. And rarely have I sensed such a connection with a film’s world that it seemed as though the screen is made of air, and that if I dared to reach out and touch it, my hand would pass into the film itself. If film is a window into other worlds, then Ballast is a first class view. It is a treasure of unusual quality.
The plot, set in the Mississippi Delta region, is simple but effective. A man commits suicide, and his family — his brother Lawrence, his ex-wife Marlee, and his troubled son James — deal with the fallout of the deed. That’s it, in a nutshell. What ensues is an intimate and poetic look at these characters’ lives as they struggle to get on with their lives. Deep resentment seethes below the surface; past quarrels are brought to light and scabs pulled open. At the end, it seems as though little has happened, and I’m reluctant to disagree with that assessment. In the grand scheme of things, not much happens. The impacts of the story’s major events remain entirely within the cloistered lives of the main characters.
The realistic nature of Ballast is heightened by the sense that this story is but one of many in the lives of these people, in the history of this particular region. Past events are alluded to with fierce memory, and take on a life of their own in the viewer’s imagination without the restrictive aid of flashbacks. The film doesn’t end so much as merely decide to leave these characters alone, dropping out of their lives with the same jarring ease as when they entered the film’s world. The main arc introduced at the outset — Lawrence’s reaction to his brother’s suicide — is resolved enough to be satisfying, but not with totality; there is still a bit of an edge, of possibility that lingers. People change and wounds run deeply; there is always the chance that several years down the road, when the camera isn’t present, Lawrence will change his mind.
The purpose of the film according to Hammer (he conducted a Q &A session at the screening I attended) is to capture the feel and presence of the Mississippi Delta region, where Ballast is set, shot, and cast. In this regard, Hammer achieves total success. The music-free soundtrack is full of ambience, both man made and natural: distant trains, pouring rain, squeaking doors, flocks of birds. The viewer is made to soak in the atmosphere; it practically pours (with the constant rain) off of the screen and into one’s lap.
Lance Hammer, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, proves himself to be a sure talent with his first feature. His editing, influenced somewhat by the Dogme movement through the careful and restrained use of jump cuts, maximizes the emotional impact of his actors’ performances. Normally I find jump cuts irritating and distracting; here Hammer deploys them to strip away emotional barriers and find these characters at their most broken and desperate.
The performances are all note perfect, each and every one delivered by non-actors from the Mississippi Delta. Does the fact that they are from the Delta make their performances less remarkable, since they have much in common with their characters, right down to even being in similar situations and settings? No, because the film requires a certain performance from each of them to maintain its illusion of reality, and that illusion is flawlessly upheld in their acting. There is a raw honesty at work in each of the main performers that grounds the film in the real world. Did Hammer deserve his Best Director award at Sundance, when a good deal of what we see is improvised and drawn out of the actors’ themselves? Absolutely; he had the good sense to let them find the voices to fit the roles, to make it more organic and less constructed. Sometimes a director has to step back, stop making things happen, and start letting it happen instead.
There is so much in this film that deserves mentioning. The anguished, bottomless love that Marlee (Tarra Riggs) has for her child. The journey of James (JimMyron Ross) who begins the film as an aimless, troubled youth and ends it as a saviour of sorts; Ross’ performance is heart-rending. The quietly soulful and sorrow-drenched presence of Michael J. Smith, Sr., who’s Lawrence stews in his own pain, but still finds the drive to bring kindness into other’s lives. The way that these family members butt heads, hurt and threaten each other, and eventually grow into a loving unit is satisfying to behold, and worth the emotional investment.
I was not immediately affected by Ballast, or so I thought. It’s been a week since I’ve seen it, and in that time, the tumble-drying process of post-film analysis has revealed it to be a tiny film of great inner strength. By focusing on the smallest of worlds, the most intimate of stories, Lance Hammer has crafted a film that can relate to anyone, in any situation, on the basis of family relationships alone. That it focuses on so specific an area of the United States should not be a deterrent; this film is a universally rich experience, and a bright gem in this fall’s deposit of movies.
Content guide: There’s a good dose of strong language, including semi-frequent use of the f-word and s-word. A man shoots himself (offscreen) but we see some of his blood splattered on a wall after the fact. A group of teenagers terrorize and beat up another youth. There is some brief material involving drugs, but nothing is used onscreen. The film is currently unrated but would certainly garner an R in the U.S. and a 14A in Canada.