The 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival Review - Ballast

I have a laptop this year. So in many case of the reviews this year, you are getting exactly what I think fairly fresh off the movie-going experience. I just left the theater from watching Lance Hammer’s Ballast. Ballast is a story about twisted family tied, the Mississippi Delta and how the most unlikely people are the ones that keep us afloat.

Micheal J. Smith sr. as Lawrence in "Ballast"

                                          Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) is catatonic when his neighbor John (Johnny McPhail) finds him. Lawrence’s twin brother Darius has committed suicide, and from poor John’s reaction at the stench, it has been a few days. Only moments later, Lawrence himself tries to take his own life, opting for a pistol over pills, But thanks to John, he does not quite succeed. After several weeks in the hospital, Lawrence must return to the same sad reality that his brother is dead and he wishes he were dead too. The only thing that has changed: the two houses on the property have been broken into, not a surprise considering the impoverished town that he lives in.

JimMyron Ross as James in "Ballast"

                                                   James (JimMyron Ross) is a  tween who has too much time on his hand, given it’s winter break. He likes to watch the trains go by and get high. We learn quickly that he owes money to the local drug dealers, a Cadillac-driving band of three tough talking late teens, and ironically he takes to robbing Lawrence. The theft is fairly easy since Lawrence does nothing to resist the invasion. What’s more ironic still is that we learn Darius was James’s father, making Lawrence his uncle.

The problems with the drug dealers escalate, vicariously causing James’s mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) to lose her job and they eventually flee to Daruis’s home, the shack right beside Lawrence. The bad blood is apparent from the mother’s first encounter with the uncle. But, still drowning in depression, Lawrence gives her cart blanc to do whatever she wants. What she wants is to sell the small grocery store and Darius’s home for money to get out of this town. Lawrence concedes that she can do whatever she wants, he doesn’t care anymore. And yet, whenever either mother or nephew go to him for help, he eventually gives it to them. Very reluctantly, the adults begin to cooperate for the sake of James.

Tarra Riggs as Marlee in "Ballast"

                                                         This is not a "feel-good" movie. The filmmaker, Lance Hammer mentioned that his motivation for making the film was to capture the sorrow of the Delta, to pay homage to the land, and this intentionally loose narrative evolved around those tentpoles. I think he succeeded in his first goal. The starkness and unforgiving quality of this land and life are palpable with every stick massed briar and muddy crop field Hammer has poor James trudge through.

I can only imagine how emotionally grueling a shoot this was for the actors of Ballast. To Lance Hammer’s credit, I did not see one person “acting” in this film. Despite the overall tone, there were several very funny moments that give the audience much needed moments of release. All performances were interesting and heartfelt and as organic to the fabric of the piece as the dirt roads and the endless skies of angry clouds. Kudos to the cast for disappearing into these roles and for handling very difficult, very intense material.

There is no music soundtrack in this film, declaring to me that the filmmaker is no interested in seducing you into the story, he clearly wants to open your eyes. The silent is coupled with the editorial choice to use just hard cuts; the piece is completely absence of cross-dissolves or fade to blacks (the latter of which I am not particularly a fan of I’ll admit) in a fairly blatant effort to keep the audience from slipping into the dream-state typically induced by movies.

However, I think these devices may have worked a little too well in this narrative piece. This film is strong medicine. And while I think it important to have a message or passion to convey behind making the film, as a narrative, I also want to be entertained. I sympathized with these characters, but I can’t say that I really liked them because I didn’t feel like I ever got to know them. I don’t need a happy ending (and we are left with hope); I just need a bit more grace in the storytelling. I guess my conclusion is a story like this, told in this fashion, in my humble opinion, is better served in the documentary arena. Or maybe the film just needs more of a third act for my taste.

Someone once told me that art is not for mass consumption. An audience should experience it, go away, think about it and come back to it after it has had a chance to gestate in the mind and heart. Perhaps I should have waited to review Ballast.

So if I change my mind, I’ll certainly let you know.   (Revised 6.30.08)

Ballast is part of the Summer Previews series at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival going on now throughout the Westwood Village until Sunday, June 29th.

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