November 17, 2009


Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): **½

With Ballast, writer/director Lance Hammer tells a story about a broken African-American family in Mississippi's Delta: a man commits suicide and his surviving twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) finds himself alone, in charge of their little convenience store and dealing with his angry sister-in-law Marlee (Tarra Riggs), who understandably has mixed emotions about seeing him. Lawrence's nephew James (JimMyron Ross) is possibly even more alone, having become involved with local drug dealers while his mother is away working all the time. Hammer lets us in on these details a little at a time, rather than spelling it all out. The setting is relentlessly gray, with leafless, spindly trees, ground so cold and muddy you can practically feel it with your toes, and a slightly foggy emptiness. This film has received glowing reviews from nearly every quarter; and with its non-white characters and barren landscapes, it does feel like an escape from fluffy Hollywood.

But while Ballast won Best Director and Best Cinematography awards at Sundance, underneath it feels more like Indie Filmmaking 101; yes, the texture is there, but the simple, aimless hand-held shaky-cam work and jump-cutting goes all the way back to Breathless (1959) and a million other films in the interim.

Moreover, without his chilly gray landscapes, Hammer can't figure out how to place or move the characters within the frame. He apparently wishes to show the inaction of grief, but the best he can do is jiggle his camera around while Lawrence sits on his bed and stares out the window. The impatient cutting and pacing lurches directly to the point of the story: the bereaved family members, practically strangers to each other, will eventually help each other learn to "loosen up" and live again. It's a favorite theme of nearly every Hollywood film, except that occasionally Hollywood has fun with it; there's no fun to be had here. Hammer has clearly been inspired by the masterpieces Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) and David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000), but has failed to grasp the tone or artistry, the willingness to pause, look around and occasionally ignore the rudimentary plot.

Kino's DVD comes with several little making-of featurettes (totaling 37 minutes), and a theatrical trailer. There are optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. Critic Amy Taubin provides a liner notes essay.

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Posted by cphillips at November 17, 2009 2:33 PM

I finally caught up with BALLAST, and it seems to me a fine example of unusual, independent filmmaking. Very true, very real, very odd. I heartily recommend it, even if you cannot.

Posted by: James van Maanen at December 23, 2009 3:08 PM

For the record, I sort of agree with Jim on this one, I liked it better than Jeffrey, too. Though it certainly isn't perfect, it's a very intelligent, worthy indie.

I'd give it ***1/2...


Posted by: Craig P at December 23, 2009 3:44 PM
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