Ballast is a tough movie to wrap your head around, especially while you're watching it. It vacillates between good and bad so frequently that you're not sure what to think. And yet, after the film's end, the grunts and sighs of discontent and disappointment that came from the audience around me (and there were, quite literally, grunts and sighs of discontent) sums it all up perfectly.
To say that the film is tough to comprehend isn't to say it’s particularly complicated or experimental. In fact, the story is relatively straightforward: a suicide is discovered, and we meet James, a 12-year-old boy (who we later learn is the son of the man who committed suicide). James basically drifts with the tides, living with his unemployed mother, Marlee, miles beneath the poverty line in the Mississippi Delta. Out of desperation, James makes some mistakes and becomes entangled with a group of local drug dealers. He and his mother flee to the home of James' uncle (the brother of the man who committed suicide). The last third of the film involves no action, revolving instead around the dynamic between these three characters.
The film has many things going for it. The script, written by director Lance Hammer, is strong -- restrained but not minimal, sympathetic without being emotional, dramatic but not convoluted. Hammer’s eye for visuals is impeccable. Like those of Craig Brewer or Harmony Korine before him, Hammer's depictions of dilapidated trailer parks and the empty expanses of the Delta are quite beautiful. The acting is solid, too, which is astonishing since the cast consists entirely of non-professional actors picked from the local Delta townships -- not to mention how demanding the script is.
The problem, however, lies with Hammer’s decision to essentially adapt a pre-existent style wholesale, despite the fact that this style is seriously unsuited to the matter on hand. With impoverished characters going through some very tough times, the audience expects the director to treat these characters with respect. Instead, Hammer adopts a style out of the French New Wave, always cool and aloof but never down in the dirt, where the film should be. The film is so self-consciously artful, the director’s style so excessively ironic (not detached, as in, say, Harmony Korine, where the film brushes up against documentation) that it essentially pushes the viewer away from the screen, preventing them from ever engaging with the characters.
Although the effort is there and the director’s integrity never in doubt, the film's moral conviction deserves a better film. Hammer, though a gifted writer and a technically accomplished director, has a bit of immaturity left to work though. If he keeps at it, I'm sure he'll be able to better match the content with his aesthetic. In the meantime, for an example of the best cinema has to offer on the topic of troubled or impoverished adolescents, consider checking out one of these masterpieces: Au Revoir les Enfants, Padre Padrone, Forbidden Games. You'll see why it's important not to settle for less.