Lance Hammer's Ballast opens with a death, and then it follows the ripples caused by this event, seeing how they impact upon the lives of the deceased's family. Darius has already succumbed to a drug overdose when the movie begins, and his twin brother Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith) almost follows him, attempting to commit suicide when his sense of grief and loss becomes overwhelming. Lawrence is a large man but a quiet, gentle one. When he has recovered from his self-inflicted wounds and returned home, he shuts himself off from the world, sitting inside his house and contemplating his suddenly empty life. Ballast follows Lawrence as he sinks into despair, and then we watch as he gradually returns to life.
He achieves this with the help of his family, but the healing process is a slow one. Darius' estranged wife Marlee (Tarra Riggs) still bears an old grudge against Lawrence, and she has her own problems to deal with anyway. Her 12 year-old son James (JimMyron Ross) is getting involved with crime and drugs. Moving him away from these dangerous influences means moving into her husband's old home, which exists side-by-side with Lawrence's house.
Hammer watches these three broken characters as they find the strength in themselves and in each other to move past their grief, but he never forces the issue. Ballast unfolds with the rhythm of life not the rhythm of movies, and Hammer shows extraordinary confidence in his untested cast, letting scenes to unfold organically, often with minimal dialogue. He never explains the characters or their situation, he just allows us to observe them as their story develops in front of us, his camera following them as they move through the bleak surroundings of the Mississippi Delta. There are scenes that invest a sudden sense of urgency into the picture – guns are drawn, and there's a kind-of car chase – but these scenes feel of a piece with the tone and mood of the picture, and Hammer doesn't use them for sensational effect. In fact, there is very little in Ballast that feels extraneous; the disciplined editing ensures that the film is full of moments that reveal something about the characters or the story, often in unexpected ways.
If it sounds too grim or something of a chore, it isn't. There is great beauty here too. The film opens with one of the most astonishing shots of the year, as James runs towards a flock of birds and then watches with open-mouthed wonder as they fly off and fill the grey sky. Grey is the film's dominant colour, with cinematographer Lol Crawley utilising a washed-out palette that creates a haunting, wintry atmosphere, and Hammer creates some striking compositions. The look and feel of the film instantly brings to mind the films of the Dardenne brothers or Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, but Hammer is very much his own man, and Ballast is a story being told by a distinctive filmmaking voice. The director's choices will undoubtedly frustrate many viewers, with his resolute refusal to give the film a familiar narrative structure or give his characters any major epiphanies, but he's just asking his audience to pay closer attention and dig a little deeper for the film's meaning. There are epiphanies here, they're just quiet ones, and not the kind we anticipate.
Hammer's preference for understatement comes through in the performances too. The three actors who play Ballast's principal characters had never acted before being hired for this film – and there are inevitable moments of awkwardness – but they give displays that feel honest, lived-in and authentic. Ballast is a film about real people simply learning to get on with their lives, and perhaps that's why it has taken three years to gain a theatrical release in this country. A story about three poor, black people struggling to cope with grief is a tough sell, and Hammer's bold attempt to self-distribute the film in the United States proved just how difficult it is for a picture like Ballast to find an audience. Now that the film is finally here, however, it deserves your attention. Ballast is an audacious work of great subtlety, intelligence and humanity, and it is a remarkable debut.