Ballast Screening Locations and Dates

Ray Pride
Lance Hammer’s Mississippi Delta-set study of the contemporary working class, isolation and ultimately hope, “Ballast,” is told in the most urgent and emphatic fashion, breathless yet hushed and gentle with a level of filmmaking skill that makes the head spin from its first few cuts. Circumstances bring together a single mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs) her 12-year-old son James (Jimmyron Ross) and an emotionally devastated convenience store owner, Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith, Sr.). Using non-professional actors, Hammer’s narrative steadily moves these characters in hard-up Canton, Mississippi, toward understanding. They’re quietly beaten down figures: James tries to escape into nature to avoid fighting with other teenagers. Marlee, fired from a menial job for bearing the visible bruises of an argument, says it shouldn’t matter, “like the motherfuckers even know that I’m there! I’m invisible to them.” Synopsis makes “Ballast” sound severe and tragic. Family rifts and blood disputes simmer, with little explained, and much emotion and history and melancholy inferred. Hammer’s work is indisputably cinematic: his control of mood and portent is exceptional, the story felt through setting and imagery. About five minutes in, there are two shots of a freight train racketing through and past the rain-soaked fields: sound and image alike evoke all manner of melancholy, even apart from the just-begun story of misunderstood siblings and boys gone bad. A shot of blackbirds rustle into the sky to great cry and light-blotting number as a troubled child chases them: no literal meaning but evocative nonetheless. Cinematographer Lol Crowley, shooting almost entirely hand-held in 35mm widescreen, honors available light in practical locations as insistently as Terrence Malick. The effects are as rich and etched as plein air painting. The world is grayer, blue at best, sadder, wetter, and yet there is beauty in these stark patches of the Mississippi Delta, landscape damp, gorgeous, drear and oblivious to joy or fearfulness in the foreground. I’d go so far to say this is not a movie that’s well-observed but one that is simply seen. Comparisons to David Gordon Green are worthy in a shared willingness to describe the contemporary working class South (”George Washington,” “All the Real Girls”) and to stir the heart with sorrow brought on by mix-up or madness (”Snow Angels”). Yet I’d like to think Hammer, a refugee from the production side of multimillion-dollar projects, has forged his style through vision and obstinacy. In interviews, he’s spoken of the time he spent in the locations where the film was shot, and Hammer also controls the distribution, preserving birthright and authorship like a hard-won land claim. (One form of alienated labor produces a tale about another form.) While this is the kind of movie you make with a copy of Bresson’s “Notes on Cinematography” rolled up in your pocket like the morning news, it’s also the sort of idiosyncratic, intimate filmmaking that is strangely atypical in the contemporary independent scene. And forgiveness and the portrayal of redemption seldom get such loving attention in American movies at all. A vast country deserves intent artists. I spoke to Hammer during the Chicago International Film Festival, and his optimism about the potential at the end of the long, hard road of filmmaking is pretty much summed up in this one minute of video from our talk: 99m. (Ray Pride)”

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