One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Sundance in full swing, we’re looking back at some of the best directorial debuts that premiered at the festival.
Success at Sundance is supposed to herald big opportunities and bright futures for directors, not mark the end of careers. But Lance Hammer wasn’t the typical Sundance Best Director winner in 2008: He was in the midst of a successful career as an art director in what he called “the nasty, ugly world of studio films,” working on the likes of Batman Forever, when he wrote, directed, and edited Ballast. Hammer hasn’t made a movie since, and has dropped completely off the public filmmaking radar.
But what a thing he left behind. Ballast is a gorgeously uncompromising, capital-I indie film, a slow, moving examination of regular people in a sad, beautiful place. The film’s population is essentially three, with non-actors Micheal Smith, Tarra Riggs, and JimMyron Ross playing poor Mississippians forced together by two acts of violence right at the film’s outset. Smith plays Lawrence, who in the film’s first few minutes attempts suicide by shooting himself in the chest—a reaction, we learn, to his twin brother’s recent suicide. Into his despondent life wanders his estranged sister-in-law (Riggs) and nephew (Ross); Lawrence’s twin left them one of the run-down houses on their property, as well as half of the convenience store that the brothers ran together.
For a while in the middle, Ballast belongs to the 12-year-old Ross, whose dabblings with drug dealers and penchant for stealing his uncle’s gun move what little plot there is forward. Hammer workshopped his three leads tirelessly before the shoot, and they’re natural almost to the point of distraction: Parts of Ballast feel like eavesdropping on a family in crisis. Adding to that sense is the film’s complete lack of music; you hear only what the characters hear, from the whooshing of wind to a TV in the background to the loaded silences between lines. Ross plays an abandoned, confused kid the way only a non-professional could, with zero affect.
His story is all in service of bringing a broken family—composed of broken people—together. If that sounds pat, it isn’t, because Ballast is nothing if not subtle: Smith plays Lawrence as a man so fully defeated that he’s barely able to muster up the energy for more than a shrug. But his scenes with Riggs crackle with that restrained energy, and when he’s finally able to make some cracks in his own emotional paralysis, it’s fantastic—and not entirely unlike Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester By The Sea. Just on a budget.
Availability: Ballast is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.