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Micheal J. Smith Sr., left, & JimMyron Ross (Photo: Alluvial Film Company)

Written & Directed by
Lance Hammer
Produced by
Hammer & Nina Parikh
Released by
Alluvial Film Company
USA. 96 min. Not Rated
Micheal J. Smith, Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs & Johnny McPhail

The Mississippi Delta was the birth place of the blues, and Ballast gives the region a comparable visual expression for both frustration and the resolve to survive. The opening long shots of the barren landscape of isolation and poverty are almost contemporary takes on the classic 1930s photographs of the Farm Security Administration.

For Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.), the depression has been internalized. He has pretty much collapsed after the suicide of his twin brother, and drunkenly mourns his failed music career as well. His immobility is countered by the irrepressible youthful energy of his curious 12-year-old nephew, James (JimMyron Ross). Crisscrossing on his bike a landscape as evocative as the moors in classic British films or John Ford’s Death Valley, James is poised to either impulsively get into trouble with the neighborhood drug dealers or to bring hope to his fractured family by staying in school.

Writer/director/editor Lance Hammer, in his feature film debut, takes awhile to set up the struggles of distinctive characters facing down past grudges, dire circumstances, and new temptations. (His cast of first-time actors are residents of the area.) Just as he takes time to establish the relationships, clashes, and crises, which are never quite clarified in improvised dialogue from a script outline, he leisurely gives his cinematographer Lol Crawley plenty of room to set the mood by following the characters with hand-held cameras around their far-flung houses, even more than in David Gordon Green’s similar Southern perambulations. The praise Ballast has garnered at such festivals as Sundance and New Directors/New Films is partly out of admiration for how Hammer adapts to this starkly American landscape a visual and naturalistic style reminiscent of such European directors like Bruno Dumont (Flanders) and the Dardenne brothers (LEnfant).

Lawrence’s small grocery store is a lifeline for the community, and step by step it slowly becomes one for James and his single mother Marlee (the charismatic Tarra Riggs, who, since this film, is pursuing an acting career). She challenges the inertia around her by taking matters into her own hands to save her son, herself, and, against his will, Lawrence. The film builds momentum to a touching celebration of bootstrap gumption in the face of stultifying adversity. Though a final confrontation between Marlee and Lawrence seems contrived, Ballast poignantly confirms that we are our brothers’ keepers and it does take a village to raise a child. Nora Lee Mandel
October 1, 2008



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