A modest triumph, Lance Hammer's Ballast marries a calculated indie aesthetic (hand-held camera, elliptical editing, de-emphasis of narrative event) to a low-slung portrait of the Mississippi Delta and its inhabitants, with local non-actors enlisted to embody the film's characters. The story of three black residents of an impoverished farming town, the film is the product of an extended immersion in the region by the director/screenwriter, himself a white Californian. Hammer brings an outsider's detachment to his observations, but his obvious familiarity with the region results in an unforced authenticity, whether taking in the generosity of a neighborly gesture or a drug-dealing subculture that seems oddly similar to its urban counterparts.
In keeping with the languorous pace of the geographical region, the film's narrative reveals itself slowly, taking its own time to spell out the connections between its characters. Following his brother's suicide and his own botched attempt at self-murder, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Jr.) spends his days rotting away in a state of spiritual vegetation. Visited regularly by a young boy, James (JimMyron Ross) who pulls a gun on him and takes his money to buy drugs (with the man's tacit consent), Lawrence eventually arises from his torpor and re-establishes a relationship with the boy and his long-suffering mother, Marlee (Tara Riggs), the exact nature of which only gradually becomes clear. Eventually the three, all at various personal lows by film's midpoint, reap the benefit of the mutual association, opening up modest possibilities of fulfillment (financial, emotional) through each other.
To watch Ballast is to continually navigate the tensions between artifice and naturalism that arise from the gap between the film's very deliberate aesthetic and its unforced presentation of character. The result is a push-pull relationship between film and audience, the actors' presence drawing us in with its lack of affect while the camerawork keeps us at a measured distance. And nowhere is this tension more evident than in Hammer's repeated use of his most consistent visual strategy, the rack focus. With rare exception, he and cinematographer Lol Crawley never allow multiple planes to remain in simultaneous focus, preferring to shift between foreground and background within single shots. The result is that even as the three desperate characters draw closer together, any question of the establishment of a sustainable intimacy is continually undercut by the filmmaker's separation of the trio through the distancing strategies inherent in his mise-en-scène.
When late in the film, Lawrence and Marlee share an unexpected scene of Platonic intimacy and the former ruins it by making romantic advances, we've been prepared for this moment of misunderstanding by an aesthetic which has refused to allow the characters any visual cohabitation. There's no question that the three exert a mutually beneficial influence on each other, with Lawrence returning to some semblance of life, Marlee re-opening Lawrence's general store and turning it into a profitable enterprise and James avoiding the temptations of crack, but there remains the sense that certain gaps of comprehension - partly the result of characters' past actions, partly inherent in the nature of interpersonal relationships - remain unbridgeable.
Perhaps the film's most telling shot occurs late in the narrative, when James sits behind the counter of the store watching his mother and Lawrence talking in the building's doorway. Although there are no direct POV shots in the film (a point Hammer stressed in a post-screening Q and A), this shot is clearly meant to take in the boy's perspective even as his head remains visible in the corner of the frame. The appearance of the two characters in the background takes the director's strategies of focusing to new extremes, the figures of Lawrence and Marlee barely visible, abstracted into outlines of pure color. James may have benefited from a change of perspective thanks to his renewed relationship with Lawrence, but if we take this blur to be any indication of how he sees the two people closest to him, then the young man may be more frightfully alone than we ever might have imagined. So, then: a potential intimacy continually undermined by contradictory visual evidence. In the last analysis, that seems to be Ballast's reading of the possibilities of human interaction.