I knew from the trailer of this film that I would love it, and sure enough, I did. There is a moment in the trailer when the main character, James, is lying down with a dog, accompanied with the oft-trite words “life affirming” (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). In this case, the words could not be more appropriate. This film, in all of its squalor, destitution, and grim grayness, is an affirmation of life in all of its imperfect, painstaking glory.
Of course, the movie begins with death. One twin brother kills himself with pills, the other shoots himself in the chest. The latter survives. The film progresses from there—quietly, mysteriously, showing us the fallout of these opening events on the lives of a mother and son, and the suicide survivor Lawrence. We know little of the whos or whys about any of these people, just the whats. It’s a very phenomenological film—confronting us with the realities of things, eschewing a direct contemplation of their meanings.
It’s a very quiet, restrained film. There is no music, no non-diagetic sound. Sometimes all sound is removed for emphasis. The end credits are loudly silent. The camera-work is fluid and handheld, with lots of jump cuts and fragmentary editing, though none of it is pretentious or jarring. It’s beautifully shot, humanely and sympathetically focusing on Mississippi delta mud and puddles and sometimes faces and sunbeams.
But Ballast is more than just a stylistic exercise. It’s a story of how we pull our lives together and make things work, even when everything seems to be going against us. One definition of the word “ballast” is “something that gives stability (as in character or conduct).” And this film is about that. It’s about how unstable characters—each on the brink and about to fall over—manage to get their bearings and build back their lives.
Ballast is a beautiful picture of the durability and persistence of humanity. At first glance it looks like some sort of cruel examination of poor, hapless black people beat down by the system. It is that, in part, but there are no victims or villainous oppressors here, and there are no excuses. The characters are flawed, frustrated, but determined to somehow forge ahead.
I love how this film slowly moves toward hope. Two-thirds of the way through, we start seeing the sun for the first time. Toxic plotlines of the first half of the film (drugs, guns) are largely abandoned and forgotten in the second half. Director Lance Hammer doesn’t bother explaining why his characters make the decisions they make; he doesn’t have to. We already know. Ballast reveals truth about humanity in the way a telescope reminds us of the existence of stars; we never doubt its existence, we just forget how glorious it looks up close.