(What follows is my full review, originally written for the Examiner, which was initially linked up at this spot. From now on this will be its home.)
Without warning, the screen lights up - if "lights up" is the right word to describe the overcast, gray, yet eerily beautiful Mississippi Delta landscape which fills the wide, wide panorama. A young boy in a parka approaches a flock of birds, then begins to run: the birds, hundreds of them, spread their wings and fly in the air, rising off the marsh as the handheld camera shudders, struggling to keep up with the boy. The kid (named James, and played by JimMyron Ross) watches the sky, vaguely impressed, expression nonetheless rather inscrutable. Cut to new vista, solid white letters imposed over the image: "Ballast."
Truck drives up to ramshackle house. Knock on door; man on couch, wrapped in blanket, won't move, looks like he's in shock. Truck driver (old man, white moustache, well-intentioned but with a hapless air) wanders around the house, discovers a dead body (man on couch's twin brother), calls 911, man on couch (a hefty, silent man named Lawrence, played by Michael J. Smith, Jr.) gets up and leaves. The old man is mumbling something on the phone about Lawrence being unresponsive - BANG! - shot rings out, man drops phone, runs outside, discovers Lawrence lying on floor of adjoining house (not in one continuous shot but in several, linked by rapid if not especially flashy cuts). Old man stutters and fumbles around impotently. Paramedics arrive, complain about Lawrence's weight, whisk him off to the hospital. Lawrence is treated in a lonesome corner of the cinderblock, his nurse changing his bandages while the reflection of forlorn Christmas lights blink in the glass divider. Cut to Lawrence's twin brother, similar body, lying dead in morgue, somehow cleaner and neater in death than Lawrence is in life. Return to bedside. Doctor speaks to Lawrence, tells him he'll be okay. Lawrence looks disappointed. Cut to immobile, deadpan plastic deer on Lawrence's lawn. Lawrence back at home, still unresponsive when old man volunteers to keep his dog for a few days. Lawrence looks at spot where he plugged himself. Looks at bed where brother passed away. Lies in bed, doesn't move.
The speed and tone of Ballast's opening sequence tells us several things. Firstly, that despite the subdued grandeur of the photography, the movie will not be sentimentalized or sensationalized, but approached with a sense of no-nonsense straightforwardness; secondly, that it will not linger or dwell, but move briskly along, employing rapid-fire storytelling economy even as it eschews conventional characterization. Thirdly, that the whole thing skates along the edge of black comedy: it's hard for uneasy laughter not to follow our initial gasp when that first shot is fired - we've just met these characters and already they're dropping like flies (although, as it turns out, they don't). Is that edgy laughter, evoked not just by the shock and the rapid clip but by the old man's bumbling reaction, intentional? The press materials and critical reactions seem to suggest a somber, earnest affair; as Manohla Dargis puts it in her very favorable review, "There isn’t much talk and not a drop of cynicism in 'Ballast,'" but the humor is there nonetheless, and it adds a welcome dose of humanity and wry perspective to the proceedings, however intended.
The lack of music or stylization means that, even with the quick edits and narrative short cuts the film doesn't feel rushed, just purposeful. Still, it can take a while to adjust to that purpose. Hammer seems so eager to avoid sentimentalization or exploitation of his characters and their real-life analogs that he rushes over these initial emotional moments, resulting in that perhaps unintentional humor which nonetheless redeems the early passages from an overdose of bleakness. Hence the deadpan, cut-to-the-chase style of the movie, interspersed with more meditative (though still not drawn-out) moments like that opening bird chase, is both a virtue and a risk - also occasionally a drawback. Hammer's approach doesn't force anything, yet nor does it initially endear us to these admittedly odd characters (the boy, pulling a gun and threatening his uncle with faux staccato bravado, turns out to be a crack addict).
Yet by the time James' somewhat ineffectual if still threatening drug dealers pull up alongside the car of his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs), the unforced tempo of the scene flow pays off and we feel genuine dread; the boy frantically tries to warn his mom but she doesn't understand. When the family, resettled with estranged uncle Lawrence (whose brother was Marlee's ex-husband) for safety, draws closer until Lawrence gently attempts to kiss his brother's ex-wife and Marlee recoils, our hearts sink, even as we may chuckle at how deftly Hammer and cast have undercut our conventional expectations, and perhaps in fraternal recognition of Lawrence's wounded romanticism. When James lies in the weeds and stares at the clouds, when Marlee matter-of-factly reopens her dead husband's store and adjusts to the demands of running it, when James quietly studies algebra at the dinner table, we can calmly appreciate the moment because it fits in with the whole. The film is all of a piece, and because it neither downplays or overplays its hand, quiet moments balance out with the dramatic turning points. (This is the stylistic meaning of the title, whose thematic meaning is played out in the reunion of the remaining twin with his other half's mate and offspring.)
Ballast belongs to a relatively new, developing genre of American independent films, which approaches the nation's poor and largely unseen citizens with muted compassion, compassion that is not played up in the style or narrative. Rather this sympathy is allowed to manifest itself in the naturalistic yet quietly lyrical placement of the camera, and the unforced performances of the nonactors. The films of Ramin Bahrani (including Chop Shop) belong to this new movement, as does Frozen River to a certain extent. Junebug (though that movie used an urban outsider as its protagonist), with its refreshingly uncondescending approach to the American South, may have also been an influence here. An obvious historical echo of the present movement is Italian neorealism, in which filmmakers took to Italy's postwar streets, using natural lighting and nonactors to tell realistic stories about the lives and struggles of working people. (And yet another influence, one more strongly-felt in terms of these films' unpretentiously poetic style, is Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's close-to-the-ground 1955 debut Pather Panchali.)
Yet while these films were revolutionary for the time, there is admittedly an ever-so-slight whiff of the stale about this neo-neorealism. Manohla Dargis (who points out another influence in the Dardennes brothers, whose work I have not seen) also writes of the film, "Mr. Hammer puts in the time, but never asserts that he knows this world and his black characters from the inside out, a wise choice for a white boy playing the blues." It may be a wise choice, but if it is a necessity it's an unfortunate one - it means that we're still outside these characters. Caution and guilt do not overburden Ballast or the better films like it, but they threaten to. As Dargis puts it, in praising Hammer, he "hovers near his characters without ever piercing their skin." Hammer eschewed some of this distance by working on the story through improvisations with the performers, giving them co-authorship in the development of the film. But the execution is still his, and the sense of removal remains, even in the movie's finest moments. While one must take and appreciate Ballast for what it is, the sense of distance, of over-respect of the subject, remains dimly frustrating (which is why that initial humor, however intentional, is welcome). All this makes one long for the day - which may be approaching faster than we think, given the increasing availability of video technology - when the presently powerless can tell their own stories in their own voices without the intercession of an interpreter, however well-intentioned. Then the scales will be truly balanced, or at least begin to be so.