I’ve already raved about Lance Hammer’s Ballast, a raw, powerful film from the real American indie scene (the one without stars, budgets or studio backing), in my DVD columns on MSN and on my blog here. A more in-depth review is now up on the Turner Classic Movies website here.
Ballast, the debut feature by Lance Hammer, is the kind of American independent feature that is becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of the festival circuit. Grounded in a specific place (a small Mississippi Delta town) and centered around the kind of lives that are so rarely seen on screen, this intimate drama is the cinematic equivalent of a miniature, a piece carved out of the stories of three troubled and damaged souls and the culture and poverty of their world. But it’s a highly charged miniature, roiling with rage and regret and sadness and desperation, and Hammer refuses to spell anything out for us. He simply throws us into the middle of their lives and expects us to piece their stories together along the way.
Hammer is a former special effects artist and art director (his filmography includes two of the Batman sequels of the nineties) but the only special effects in this low budget, regional indie drama are the expressive qualities of natural light 35mm film, the lonely atmosphere of the spare locations on the Mississippi Delta and the painful honesty of his non-actor stars. His camera is intimate but restrained, bringing us past their defenses and into their faces and their eyes. He’s attuned to the sounds of their world and there’s no musical score to get between the audience and the beautifully orchestrated soundtrack; every sound that splits the silence becomes music in itself, where it’s the sound of rain spattering into puddles in the yard or the crunch of gravel under Lawrence’s heavy feet as he marches between the homes. You can almost feel the chill of the winter air, or the warmth from the kitchen stove as the adults try to figure out how to turn a small neighborhood store into a shared business.