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Ballast is a 2008 film directed by Lance Hammer. It competed in the Dramatic Competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the awards for Best Director and Best Cinematography. The film received 6 nominations in the 2009 Film Independent Spirit Awards. The film opens with a local man driving to the home of Lawrence and Darius, twin brothers who operate a local store. Upon entering the home, the man discovers Darius dead in his bedroom with Lawrence sitting on the couch unable to speak. Lawrence then walks to a neighboring property and shoots himself in the chest, which he survives. In the hospital, it is revealed that Darius committed suicide. Depressed and unable to return to the store he owns, Lawrence spends his days at the property he shared with his brother. Meanwhile, James, Darius' estranged pubescent son, steals Lawrence's gun and holds him at gunpoint for money to buy crack. After a failing to repay debts to his drug dealer, James and his mother, Marlee, are targeted in a drive-by assault. Unable to return home, Marlee confronts Lawrence about Darius leaving her and James many years prior and moves into Darius' vacant apartment.
It begins with an attempted double suicide as Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) walks into his bedroom to find his twin brother, Darius, dead from a self-inflicted overdose and decides to follow suit with a gunshot to his chest. An unexpected recovery doesn't brighten his disposition, nor does his sister-in-law Marlee (Tara Riggs) and nephew James (JimMyron Ross). This triptych of lost souls wander empty farms and side roads and settle in their ramshackle homes, finding little reason past a dreary climate for Darius' decision. Their only refuge comes in the form of restoring an abandoned gas mart that once belonged to Lawrence and Darius.
Inflected with similar tone and imagery as the Dardenne brothers, Belgium's high laureates of Bressonian mischief, Hammer uses non-professional actors and coaxes out quiet, natural performances, especially from the hulking Smith who borders on catatonic. He has some very engaging interplay with the equally-mum Ross, whose character begins on a note of crime as he attempts to rip off a local pack of hoodlums and then rob his uncle of his scant possessions. Marlee, the lone feminine presence, causes commotion like she was paid up-front but Riggs, a visceral presence, keeps her grounded in urgency rather than melodrama.
It's the absence of music and clamor that makes Ballast such a nuanced work. The opening image is stupendous: James in his parka running towards a flock of geese, scattering them into the ash-grey sky before settling on a static shot of James. Increasingly mobile, Hammer's use of handheld cameras juxtaposes with his dilatory cast, suggesting inner bedlam to match a stoic veneer. With the exceptions of Marlee's outbursts, however, the film keeps things at a low hum, nestling deep into its rainy, mud-strewn purgatory.
Hammer's film is not without its faults: certain scenes run aimlessly, and the saving grace of the gas mart comes rather abruptly. Nevertheless, Ballast overcomes, bathed in natural light framed eloquently by cinematographer Lol Crowley in widescreen 35mm.
Whereas Frozen River was picked up by the accountably audacious Sony Pictures Classics, Ballast emerged both from Sundance and New York's New Directors/New Films series with a bevy of admirers and no distribution. Taking a note from David Lynch, Hammer decided to self-distribute, sending the film to several key art-house theaters (namely New York's Film Forum). It's a move that may be remembered not for its acumen but its balls. That said, in a film climate that allows banalities the likes of Meet Bill and The Babysitters to get backing, perhaps DIY is the radical action needed. Is this some sort of Marxist overhaul of studio protocol? Indie or death!