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A single mother and her embattled son struggle to subsist in a small Mississippi Delta township. An act of violence thrusts them into the world of an emotionally devastated highway store owner, awakening the fury of a bitter and longstanding conflict. Written by
An intense debut shot with love and conviction in the Mississippi Delta
First-time LA-based director Lance Hammer's powerful, naturalistic film seeks to capture what he sees as the prevailing sadness of the Mississippi Delta landscape through its concentrated portrait of a little black family torn by terrible grief and gradually struggling from despair to reconciliation and hope. Ballast begins with a shaky camera shot of a flock of birds flying away across a plain in the Mississippi Delta, then to violent events too fast to grasp completely. A white man, John (Johnny McPhail), comes to the door of a little house to ask Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) what's wrong. He won't speak, goes outdoors and a shot rings out. He's shot himself. John calls 911 and Lawrence is rushed to the hospital. For a while this almost looks like an episode of "Cops." The hand-held camera throws the viewer in the heart of all this action with a palpable documentary-style intimacy.
Things cool down a bit as the camera moves over to the house nearby on the same lot where a mother, Marlee (Tara Riggs), lives with her teenage son James (JimMyron Ross). Marlee works in a lousy job cleaning latrines. James is on break from school and pays visits to young drug dealers he owes money to. Rudderless and confused about his dead father, a recent suicide and Lawrence's twin, who never visited him, James turns to desperate and risky behavior that he tries to hide from his mother. The drug dealers pay a threatening visit to James's house.
Back from the hospital Lawrence remains so paralyzed by grief over his brother's suicide perishables are going bad in his little convenience store and he can barely speak, let alone reopen the store and resume normal life. Marlee gets fired from her job and there's no money. James wanders the fields, his only friend perhaps the family dog, the half-wolf Juno. Slowly, the three let out their grievances and begin reconciliation and a solution that involves the property the twins' late father left them and an uneasy cooperation between Lawrence and Marlee.
Hammer's film-making, which got him consideration at the Berlinale and two top prizes for directing and cinematography at Sundance in early 2008, involves a strong camera and meticulous natural sound (with no music), but above all the director's own commitment to humanistic integrity. His various models include Mike Leigh, Charles Burnett, and the Dardennes--Leigh for the attention to family conflicts, Burnett for truth about African-American life, the Dardennes for a method in which the camera literally dogs the footsteps of ordinary people in crisis.
This isn't digital but 35 mm. Technicolor in widescreen, by Lol Crawley, edited by Hammer. Dolby Digital sound designed by Kent Sparling of George Lucas' Skywalker Sound and edited by Julia Shirar (who's worked with Sofia Coppola and Noah Baumbach) was designed by Sam Watson, a Mississippi native, all with close, committed involvement in the project.
Essential to Hammer's approach was to use local people in the main roles and a screenplay whose dialogue was frequently rewritten by the actors who embellished their scenes with improvisation. Even when James' dialogue at some points is nearly inaudible, the sound crew kept that. Though this may be a dubious nod to authenticity, the film is so involving that it hardly leaves the viewer time to think. If this is the Dardennes, it is the Belgian brothers working in top form--save for the ending, which is no resolution or even a question mark, just an abrupt blackout. However, the whole second half of the film is a struggle toward resolution that gives a surprise sense of hope slowly emerging out of what middle-class viewers in particular might tend to see as an utterly hopeless situation.
Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. To be distributed by IFC Films in late August 2008.
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