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Lance Hammer's Ballast: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Alluvial Film Company)


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ballast (2008)
Directed by Lance Hammer
(Alluvial Film Company)

Reviewed by Nathan Kosub

West on Highway 6, an hour outside of Elvis Presley’s hometown of Tupelo, hill country gives way, dramatically, to the Mississippi Delta. Regional factories for national corporations like Caterpillar and Winchester — stalwarts of the state’s modern economy — become rural farm equipment dealerships as the terrain cedes hills for fields of soy and cotton. Enter Ballast, written and directed by Lance Hammer, “strewn with trash” (Salon) from “one crummy-looking Delta location to another” (The Onion).

If there is trash, I did not see it. Ballast, if anything, is spellbound by location, and we all know what a spell will do. The homes where Hammer’s characters live and the gas station that becomes their focus are right off the highway, out of town. Beyond the narrow shoulders are winter fields full of migrating geese, stands of trees, and water. The gas station does good business. On long drives through lonely places, people like to see someone, anyone, behind a cash register.

It would be easy to overstate the story Hammer tells: a woman, a man, and a child try to get past a tragedy. But Hammer tells it unobtrusively. Ballast never tries to shed its fictional identity for politics, and its truths are modest, conveyed gently by cinematographer Lol Crowley and actors Tara Riggs, JimMyron Ross, and Michael J. Smith. In interviews, Hammer says that much of what he likes about Ballast was the result of good luck, the optimist’s take on patience and time.

James (Ross) lives with his mother, Marlee (Riggs). James’s safety is threatened, and Marlee takes him to live in the house her ex-husband left her, next door to James’s uncle, Lawrence (Smith). The movie begins with a suicide. The Delta, of course, is full of towns and cities, and each town full of people. Ballast is not their film. Even the houses are lonely. But at night, their separate colors merge, and they share a shade of blue. There is, at night, an even greater sense of space in the darkness off the highway, enlarged by headlights that pass regularly in the opposite direction.

Because Hammer’s characters are attuned to that emptiness — to thoughtfulness and days alone — they are tender in their interactions, and only adjust to change with time. The death that begins the film is too unwieldy an engine for the slight narrative, but as a narrative device, death is merely a way forward. Even an early threat of drugs, which provides a remarkable instance of high suspense in the form of a highway encounter (see how quickly vastness collapses into the gap between two cars), dissolves into a slow, proportionate resolution.

Like many measured films, the movie’s humor is already too little remarked upon. Lawrence’s dog, Juno, “half-wolf” and big, pads in and out of rooms where characters respond to his size with a tentative but loving stroke of the dog’s soft fur. When James meets Juno, he whispers a wide-eyed “whoa.” Before that, he sees a picture of Juno in a frame on Lawrence’s refrigerator door. It looks like an Olan Mills portrait from junior high. Juno, we learn, belonged to Lawrence’s brother, who lived next door. Lawrence wanted him closer than that. Thus the photo, funny and sweet, on the fridge.

I cannot say if Ballast is a great film about recovery or moving on. Small details, like the brothers’ jobs as deejays, or the devastated cinder-block building where they worked together, say again and again that this is fiction. But already my mind has moved past Halloween to a Mississippi mid-winter full of rain. The January air hangs heavy, dragged down by the clouds. Grey skies suggest a coat even when the temperature refutes it. So Ballast is great with place, at least.

When Lawrence and Marlee argue about love, the words sound forced and a little awkward. Hammer is more comfortable with a particular, less ambitious articulation of grief — in this case, jealousy. Marlee and Lawrence each claim the other brought unhappiness to a man they both loved, though each knows the accusation is a lie. The jealousy in each character’s actions is more than equal to any overwritten speech about the heart, so Hammer favors action. He wants to show more than tell, and Ballast’s most powerful moments are wordless, or nearly.

Take, for example, a neighbor’s invitation to dinner not long after the death of Lawrence’s brother. The neighbor lives in a sparely appointed house, larger than Lawrence’s. In three shots — house from a distance; front porch; dining room, abetted by remarkable production design — we know that the neighbor, an older man, lives alone.

Lawrence accepts his invitation, and over a porterhouse steak excuses himself to use the bathroom. After washing his hands, he passes the study and sees Juno watching him from the floor. The neighbor volunteered to watch the dog, but Lawrence is not ready to take him back. We know it will be harder for the neighbor the longer Lawrence waits, but recovery takes time.

Later, James is at the gas station when two men arrive to deliver beer. James stands against the wall; he wants to be out of the way. The men enter the store. “What up, player?” asks the first, wheeling in cases on an upright dolly. “What’s up, little man?” says the second, close behind. James is shy, of course, and doesn’t say a thing. Kids are shy around adults, and we like them for it, because it reminds us how unfamiliar — how impressive — the world used to seem.

Isn’t that, more than drugs or separation, enough to make Ballast ring true? Isn’t a small truth, a little sympathy, all we need? Yes, and I haven’t seen another new film this year that argued the point so well.



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