Best Under-the-radar Movies #2: Ballast

Ballast
USA, 2008
Written and directed by Lance Hammer
Starring Michael J. Smith Sr., JimMyron Smith, and Tarra Riggs

Available to stream on Fandor, HuluPlus, and Xfinity Stream Pix

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Ballast opens in the Mississippi Delta in the wake of a suicide. The atmosphere is dim, bleak, and unsettling. Before we know it another character attempts to take his own life. Just two minutes into the movie and we know what kind of world we’ve been dropped into. The successful man, the one lying dead from a pill overdose, is Darius. The other is his twin brother, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), who tries to shoot himself but manages only to severely damage his lung. The rest of the film will follow Lawrence very closely, and it begins to feel like we are on suicide watch.

Ballast-007In addition to Lawrence, the story follows his nephew, Darius’s son James (JimMyron Smith) and James’s mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs). How will these three change in the wake of the opening events? Things don’t seem to go well. James gets involved with drug dealers, pulls a gun on his uncle for drug money, and lives in constant fear of being jumped or shot on the street. Not to mention the fact that he has to deal with his father’s suicide. Eventually Marlee loses her job and thrusts her little family even deeper into poverty.

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This all sounds terribly depressing, but somehow it never quite feels that way. Often movies like this like to heap on the heartache, and add one defeat after another until the characters are broken. But Ballast is a better movie than that. Like real people in real life, we see them bounce back from their troubles. These are strong, if terribly dysfunctional, characters and they won’t give up. Marlee and Lawrence hesitantly build something like a friendship, and do their best to make whatever life they can for James. A lesser story would have finished with a happy ending, in which the characters settle into a nice new family and live life comfortably. Or, just as bad, it could have been a sad ending, in which Lawrence kills himself, James joins a gang, and Marlee turns back to drugs.

But writer/director Lance Hammer knows stories shouldn’t wrap up nicely. They keep going, and to tie up the ends would be doing a great harm. Instead he leaves all possibilities open. The story is not about plot, climax, denouement, etc. It’s about what it feels like to have your life taken out from under you and having to fight to get it back.

Going into the movie, I knew nothing about the filmmakers. Afterwards, I did a search of IMDB and was surprised to find that this is Lance Hammer’s only feature film as a director. His only other credits are a short film from six years earlier and, oddly enough, visual effects credits for Batman & Robin and Batman Beyond. How does one go from designing Gotham on a computer to directing a raw, absorbing tale about the human heart? I don’t know. I’m more interested in knowing why he isn’t still making movies.

This movie…I like it. Another!

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