Set in the bleak expanse of a Mississippi delta township, Ballast follows three individuals thrown together following the death of a family member.
Single mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) is struggling to keep her head above water, working long hours at a dead-end job in order to keep her 12-year-old son James (JimMyron Ross) in school.
James has other ideas and, largely left to his own devices, he turns to delinquency, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd who know an easy target when they see one. When Marlee’s ex-husband’s kills himself, they’re reunited with his twin-brother Lawrence (Michael J. Smith), who spends most of his time in nearly mute depression, but conflict arises when old wounds are reopened and unresolved issues rise to the surface.
Director Lance Hammer, in his debut, has a great eye for windswept shorelines and washed out landscapes and Lol Crawley’s cinematography is almost post-apocalyptic, bathing everything in a watery grey light that underscores the crushing sense of ennui and isolation.
The acting while downbeat is first rate – Hammer’s decision to use non-professional actors really pays off. In particular Michael J. Smith is superb – a lumbering, gentle giant of a man with a permanent hang-dog expression – his face often says much more than words could. He’s ably supported by Tarra Riggs, her damned up emotions threatening to overspill her responsibilities.
However, despite its intriguing set up and compelling acting, Ballast lacks the pace and momentum to keep it completely captivating. There are far too many shots of characters staring out of windows for extended periods of time – while it’s intended to convey deep thought and stimulate reflection on the part of the viewer; its overuse quickly belabours its impact. It’s a trait common to many independent films, where inaction is construed as profound contemplation but it makes for soporifically dull cinema.
In attempting to put mood before plot, Ballast struggles to reach a satisfying conclusion. Its meandering eventually leads its resolution being crammed into the final act, a decision which leaves it uneven. It’s a heartfelt portrayal of grief and reconciliation beautifully framed, shot and acted but its sluggish tempo prevents it from having the weight that its title suggests.