Written by Georgie Hobbs
14 Monday 14th March 2011

Like last year’s Sundance winner, Winter’s Bone, Ballast is a small familial story set in the too-little-seen Southern states of America. It’s an area usually associated with the chills of Deliverance and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but like Debra Granik’s lauded film, Ballast is helping to right that wrong. It may start off with a death and a gun shot but this is no horror show – Hammer’s film is a quiet story of loss, life and hope in the Mississippi Delta.

Heavy-set Lawrence (Michael J. Smith), a frustrated radio DJ who runs the local petrol station, is in shock when his twin brother and neighbour Darius overdoses on pills. Bereaved, Lawrence tries to shoot himself but misses the vital organs and grudgingly goes on living. He receives visits from his teenage nephew, James (JimMyron Ross), who routinely mugs him at gunpoint in order to buy drugs. But when James gets into deep water with the town’s dealers (all teens themselves), he and his mother Mylee (Tarra Riggs) leave home and move into Darius’ house, next to Lawrence’s. Lawrence and Mylee share an unspoken, but clearly fractious history, and the process of re-acquaintance is strained.

The film then proceeds to capture the glimmers of hope and humanity that emerge when people act neighbourly. There’s no crescendo, no love story, just the heartbreak of life as it ticks endlessly on. Three broken people, shells of a man, woman and child, lend each other weight, grounding themselves into some sort of homely stability, unglamorous as it is.

Deeply humanist, and with a cast of locals, writer-director Hammer is not dissimilar to Mike Leigh. He too focuses on minute aspects of family life made realer via improvised dialogue. And, like Leigh, is avowedly anti-epiphany (Ballast could easily have been titled something as dreary as Another Year). Yet Hammer’s vision is perhaps more poetic, even less plotted. He actively attempts to quash the drama out of his characters’ skeleton-filled closets; preferring only to allude to past pains instead of wrenching them to the surface as a more conventional writer-director might. The audience is kept guessing, trying to trace the scattered clues that make up one broken family’s story. With no soundtrack and little plot, Hammer’s is a film that actively demands attention, set in a haunting atmosphere of loneliness quintessential to its unique southern setting.

Ballast is out on March 18, see

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