Film : The weight of place
The Martha's Vineyard Film Festival is screening "Ballast," written and directed by Lance Hammer, at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven tomorrow night at 7 pm. At the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Mr. Hammer won the Dramatic Directing Award for "Ballast," his first feature film as writer and director, and Lol Crawley won the Cinematography Award for the movie, his first feature as a cinematographer. The film also won awards and recognition at festivals in Berlin, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires.
Small wonder that "Ballast" was so well received. It's an ambitious film, even daring, mixing a spare plotline, crisp camera work, and uncomplicated acting to create a haunting picture of a demanding place and its power over the people who live there.
The three central figures in the movie - a single mother, her 12-year-old son, and her former brother-in-law - are fighting for their lives in the poorer reaches of the Mississippi Delta.
James, the 12-year-old, is first shown aimlessly wandering over cold fields of stubbled corn in the dead of winter, apparently dreaming of some way around the flat, featureless dimensions of his life and the landscape around him.
For excitement, or simply to taste something that feels alive, he enlists with some older boys who are dealing drugs, and very nearly gets caught up in the destructive vortex of that life.
Marlee, James's mother, is sapped by a demeaning job that leaves her without the means or the time to give James the attention he needs. The details of her past aren't important: it's clear that she has had a hard time of it.
Finally, there is Lawrence, who has simply given up after the death by overdose of his twin brother. So totally devastated, he cannot even care for his dog - nor accept its love.
What they share is sorrow, either for what's gone or for what's not possible. At various times, they are all shown looking off almost blankly, as if their situation has made them stupid, or sitting or lying absolutely still, as if paralyzed by it. They are also bound by a complicated history, manifested at present by distrust and hatred.
As if to emphasize the barrenness of the place, the action takes place in winter, when the landscape is punctuated by long shadows from skeletal trees and often illuminated by a lifeless sky.
There is no accompanying soundtrack, so sometimes all we hear is the scuffling of shoes or the creaking of springs as one of the characters moves, or the drone of a vehicle passing by on the two-lane blacktop.
It's strong medicine, but it's somehow delivered in a digestible format. Mr. Hammer pulls no punches in depicting the hard lives of the principals in "Ballast," but his clarity enhances the credibility of the characters and the challenges they face.