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"Ballast": a Great Lost Indie Movie Ripe for Rediscovery, Now at Popflick


It would be a stretch to call Ballast a lost film. The movie debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and earned Directing and Cinematography awards. It made it into a few Best of the Year lists and gathered some Indie Spirit nominations. Alas, you could say director Lance Hammer went MIA. He paid his dues working on visual effects in studio fare like Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher, 1997) and Practical Magic (Griffin Dunne, 1998), inching towards the independent side of the industry by working on the Art Department of The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001). After seven years of radio silence, he took over Salt Lake City by storm with his stellar feature film debut. So far, it remains his most recent credit on IMDB.

I caught up with Ballast now that it is available to stream at Popflick, and the experience is nothing short of revelatory. Fifteen years after its premiere, I do not hesitate to say it remains as fresh and forceful as if made today. The action takes place at the Mississippi Delta, where the suicide of one Darrius Batiste shakes up the lives of three characters. His twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) is so shocked that he spends some days shut-in in their house with the body until a friendly neighbor (Johnny McPhail) visits them and finds the rotting corpse in bed. Marlee (Tara Riggs), who barely makes a living as a cleaner, gets a new lease on life when she finds her estranged partner left her an inheritance. Neglected teenage son James (Jim Myron Ross) reaches out to his uncle as a paternal figure by proxy to seek retribution and love.

Ross tries to go back to being a kid in "Ballast" / Courtesy of Alluvial Film Company

Ross tries to go back to being a kid in "Ballast" / Courtesy of Alluvial Film Company

That brief synopsis might make you think Ballast is your standard indie movie, portraying the lives of underprivileged characters to manufacture some facile emotional uplift. But there is no preciousness in Hammer’s script and direction. There is a matter-of-fact quality in his incursion in the Mississippi Delta and its treatment of the character’s predicaments. The narrative arc moves towards something like hope but modulated by a measured script that avoids telegraphing the character’s feelings. If anything, it takes pains to keep the most important things unsaid, just like people do in real life.

You can see the parts of an overwrought drama floating around: two suicides, one successful and the other one protracted, a gun falling in the least expected hands, and shocking bouts of physical violence. And yet, Hammer consciously tempers down the dramatics. A roving, hand-held camera records the proceedings with surgical detachment, not as a lecherous tabloid monger trying to amp up the tension. Yes, shaky hand-held may be a cliche now, shorthand for bleeding-heart realism, but in Ballast, it feels as natural as the light coming through the windows of the houses the characters inhabit. British cinematographer Lol Crawley is the most successful alum, amassing over 40 credits since winning the Best Cinematography award at Sundance. His latest work is Noah Baumbach’s ambitious adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (2022).

Together we are heavy: Ross and Smith Sr. mend family strife in "Ballast" / Courtesy of Alluvial Film Company

Together we are heavy: Ross and Smith Sr. mend family strife in "Ballast" / Courtesy of Alluvial Film Company

If only we could say the same thing about the cast. The three leads in Ballast were acting for the first time, giving unaffected, unguarded performances. Ross was the only one who went on to secure more roles - too few and limited, despite her powerhouse talent. To this date, the movie remains the first and last film of Smith Sr. and McPhail, who make a complicated pas-de-deux. The adult man and the child switch power as a gun changes hands among them. First, James steals his uncle’s gun to intimidate and rob him of money to pay off drug dealers. Lawrence, still traumatized by his brother’s death and his own failed suicide attempt, complies gently. As he wakes up from his existential torpor, he turns the tables on his nephew. The next time the kid takes it, it will be an act of unspoken love.

The script excels at tracking the ever-changing relationships. Marlee begins doting on James, overcompensating for the absent father who left them. Eventually, it becomes clear that the kid is putting himself and her in danger. James moonlights as a courier for a low-rate drug gang and begins to dabble in drugs himself. A bad debt leads to violence. Marlee realizes her son has a secret life, and the shock cuts through the bone. You can tell she is not just scared after being run off a road and punched in the face by a thuggish drug dealer. She realizes her son is not a child anymore but a young adult sinking into the deep end. Another tightrope act comes in the evolution of her relationship with Lawrence. It goes from contentious resentment to appreciation. Eventually, they join forces to keep the family business going. It is a dusty gas station and convenience store. Owning a store may push them over the poverty line, but Ballast remains an eloquent portrait of poverty. Marlee’s precarious life before she reaches this state of affairs offers a first-hand account of a woman living one paycheck away from disaster. A lesser movie would push Lawrence and Marlee into a romantic relationship. Ballast considers the possibility but remains true to the character’s personality.

Mother courage: Riggs and Ross fight to stay afloat in "Ballast". / Courtesy of Alluvial Film Company

Mother courage: Riggs and Ross fight to stay afloat in "Ballast". / Courtesy of Alluvial Film Company

In form and spirit, Ballast reminded me of another, more recent Sundance find: A Thousand and One (A.V. Rockwell, 2023), this year’s winner of the Grand Jury Prize. They share their understated and emphatic treatment of African American characters struggling in a world designed to keep them down, with their all-too-human flaws working against their best intentions.

As I finished this article, good news on the Lance Hammer front came to light. In a recent interview with Variety, French actress Juliette Binoche revealed the Ballast auteur plans on directing one of her upcoming projects. There are no further details about it, not even a plot outline. Still, their pairing sounds promising. One of the craftiest actresses of our generation and an American visionary must come out with something interesting. Here’s hoping it does not get lost in development and the promise shown in Ballast comes into full bloom.

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