Ballast Screening Locations and Dates

Duane Dudek
Indie film portrays 3 people seeking stability in each other
Posted: Feb. 19, 2009

The Academy Awards on Sunday isn't the only movie event this weekend.

The Spirit Awards, the Oscars of the indie film scene, are being held Saturday.

The two worlds are far apart, but they are distantly related. For instance, Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins received nominations from both groups for their performances in "Frozen River" and "The Visitor" respectively, and the former also snagged a Spirit nomination for best picture.

But there are Spirit Award-nominated films that Oscar has never heard of but which are Oscar-worthy nonetheless - notably, "Ballast," Lance Hammer's compassionate and intelligent tale of dysfunctional and disenfranchised lives in the rural Mississippi Delta.

"Ballast" is another film that would have been overlooked locally if not for the aggressively programmed schedule of alternative films at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Union Theatre.

The film is a portrait of lives balanced on a fulcrum.

At its center are a lost boy and a lost man, his uncle, jarringly reunited at gunpoint after the death of the man's twin, who was the father whom the boy never knew.

Between them stands the boy's mother, hands on hips, a fragile but formidable mediator of a lifetime's worth of grievances. All the boy is learning in school is "how to take drugs and get beat on," his mother is too distracted by poverty to notice, and the boy's uncle is so traumatized by his brother's death that he attempts suicide.

They live side by side on the same plot of land, two halves of a house divided against itself, until they learn that the only way to stay standing is to lean against each other for support. This discovery is hard-learned and slow in coming. And until it does, they circle warily and confront each other with inarticulate fury, unable to express feelings of despair and confusion except by silence or anger.

Like other recent films, including "Slumdog Millionaire," and "Wendy and Lucy," which is coming to UWM in May, "Ballast" explores lives through a prism of class. Aesthetically, it has the sparse purity of barren trees and the brutal intimacy of a broken vow. The film is without a soundtrack except for the ambient noise of cars on gravel, trucks on the highway and winter rain on the roof, and has a visually minimalist sense of composition and editing.

The characters' journey is made more perilous by the desolate and almost post-apocalyptic terrain they must cross, which characters in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" might recognize as their own.

And that Micheal J. Smith Sr., Tarra Riggs and JimMyron Ross, who give hauntingly beautiful performances as the man, woman and child, respectively, are all non-actors, makes their journey even more remarkable.”

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