Lance Hammer's feature film debut Ballast starts off impressive, sullenly mysterious, and certainly with a distinctive vision, but unfortunately the film's energy and inspiration dwindle, meander, and turn downright clichéd after the first half hour. Shot in a depressive blue monochrome mostly on handheld camera, the film is set in a desolate, anonymous Mississippi countryside filled mostly with unhappy, poor blacks. The obliqueness of the film's first act is where Ballast is at its best. We seem to catch many of the film's key story elements, such as the death of Lawrence's (Michael J. Smith Jr.) brother and a foray of the dead man's estranged young son James (JimMyron Ross) into a den of local drug dealers, well after establishing events have occurred. The mumbles and threats in the dank drug warehouse James creeps into to score a more serious load of drugs is all the more evocative because we aren't quite sure exactly what is going on, nor why it is happening. We are dropped medias res into forlorn catastrophe, drugs, delinquents, shell-shocked mourning and desperate action, the muffled silences and unexplained motivations exciting for all the guesswork the audience has to do.
The tone, then, is one of slightly off-kilter destabilization, us playing catch up, specifically to the plot but more tonally and thematically to the deadened, depressive, and generally hopeless situation of Lawrence, James, and James's single mother (and possibly now widow) Marlee (Tarra Rigs). With his non-actors registering emotions and events mostly in a sullen, insular brooding, dialog is kept to a minimum and the film creates an aura of mystery that is a combination of wondering what exactly had been everyone's relationship to bring them all to this wretched point, and also wondering what will happen due to the recourse of these barely known people's unusual behavior.
But eventually Hammer does parse out context and exposition, and while these remarkably make the characters and their situation more interesting, it also drags the plot and the mystery to a halt as the trio fall along predictable lines of dealing with the death of the brother/father/lover and the new relationships between the three without him. Soon too the bleak Mississippi setting is neglected, failing to be pushed any farther than as a kind of generic, abstract aura of poverty and human desolation even when the film is awkwardly trying to use this rag-tag group's location and socio-economic status for story purposes. Once we begin taking the easy way out a plot falls into line, redemption becomes apparent, threats irrationally dissipate, setting is barely used for anything except mood, and Ballast loses its unusual kind of art-house grit, its fascinatingly realism in situation and in behavior that mixes with the mysterious gaps and uncertainties of art cinema.