Set in the rural Mississippi delta, BALLAST brings home the effects and consequences of self-imposed isolation with one arresting image: a stain on a wall. It got there when Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Sr.) attempted suicide in the wake of his twin brother’s death. Though a neighbor was there to check on him, though that same neighbor took charge of Lawrence’s dog until he came home from the hospital, the blood stain on the wall was there to greet Lawrence when he returned. Nothing has changed in the small home next to the one where his brother died and Lawrence is left to clean the visible mark of his desperation. He will shortly be called upon to clean the psychic mark of his desperation, as well, and it will be in the form of a boy (JimMyron Ross) who invades his home with a gun and a demand for money, and the boy’s mother (Tarra Riggs), with her own claims on Lawrence.
Despair propels the action. The boy running afoul of a local gang, his mother unable to hold down even the most menial of jobs, and Lawrence losing interest in the convenience story he and his brother owned. Through a long series of fruitless attempts to get the better of each other, they reach a joyless détente by means of which possibilities appear, though not necessarily welcome ones.
Writer/director Lance Hammer has crafted a lyrical mood piece. The actors, unprofessional but each giving powerful performances, collaborated on the script, bringing an air of intimate authenticity to the story. Smith in particular, whose stolid passiveness is an imponderable well of sadness barely but immutably penetrated by the violent unpredictability of Ross on his visits to rob him. Riggs, by contrast, gives a vibrant performance with a solid bedrock of dignity playing against emotional uncertainty. Each is a lost soul aching to be found, each unable to even imagine how that might happen. The relationship that forms goes through many stages, angry, resentful, tentatively resigned to being stuck with each other. The film follows the negotiations, the small kindnesses, the larger insults, and the eventual deep understanding of who each of them is beneath the surface that time and circumstance has created.
Hammer, by extension, explores a south not usually seen on screen, where race is less important than class, and class distinctions are acknowledged and enforced less with bigotry than with expectations on each side. This is a finely observed drama that has an emotional immediacy that is as overwhelming as it is unpretentious. Cameras are hand-held for the most part. The action unfolds as though in documentary. Violence erupts within a silent landscape that rolls to the horizon with a disconcerting indifference, while the characters, even minor ones, are invested with the sense that their ties to one another and to this place extend into centuries past.
BALLAST is fraught with tears of many kinds, anger, sadness, hope, and joy. It is a small gem of humanity brought into sharp focus without sentiment, but with wellsprings of emotions that seem as real and as unpremeditated as the flock of birds that starts the film with their flight into the unknown.