Lance Hammer’s Ballast centers on a black boy whose single mother was once a junkie, who makes occasional drug drops on his motorbike for a gang of local dealers, and who sometimes waves a gun. There’s also a death, a near-death and a physical attack on the boy and his mother — none of which should lead you to jump to conclusions about the kind of movie this will turn out to be. The violence is fleeting and almost apologetically impressionistic. Poverty is palpable but not germane. More Charles Burnett than Hughes brothers, Ballast is a tone poem that joins the landscape of the Mississippi Delta, where natural beauty and ex-urban ugliness mingle without prejudice, to a calibrated catharsis that will cause three souls adrift to shift course.

Nobody talks much, and what’s said is adjunct to the physical and emotional abyss that yawns between the loving unit of James (Jimmyron Ross) and his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) on the one hand, and a suffering hulk of a man named Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) on the other. The movie opens as a concerned white neighbor checks on Lawrence, who slumps in an armchair, keeping catatonic vigil over the body of his dead brother stretched out on a bed. In time, we’ll learn why James shows up to menace the monosyllabic Lawrence with a gun, why he demands to see the scar on his chest, why one night James and Marlee come over without warning to lay claim to half the property on which he lives, and why all three have more than a passing interest in the genetic make-up of twins. But it’s the way the characters move around — the way they look or avoid looking at one another, the way Hammer shoots them through doorways or down a hall or lying face-down on a bed — that proves telling. Lawrence and Marlee have old scores to settle that erupt in small bursts of festering anger, jealousy, resentment and displaced desire, imperiling the uneasy truce that has allowed them to build a shared life of sorts.

Though it comes laden with the trappings of extreme indie — a hand-held camera; no score to speak of; stripped-down dialogue developed in rehearsal with nonpro local actors, that’s sometimes hard to catch — Ballast tells a fairly simple story of alienation and halting rapprochement that gives touching redefinition to the idea of family. That it does by so honoring its characters with rich inner lives requires poise and discipline, especially in a first-time filmmaker with a background in art direction. I liked the movie quite a bit, but I found it a touch lugubrious and draggy at times in ways that inadvertently suggest that poor black people never have any fun. And I’m frankly surprised by the rapture with which it’s been received at Sundance (two awards), IFP’s Gotham Awards (four nominations) and by a whole raft of critics I respect.

Ballast is an impressive first feature, but I’m not sure such extravagant acclaim can be good for Hammer so early in his career, when to my mind he doesn’t — or doesn’t yet — have the lyrical feel for the rhythms or the depth of black family life that Burnett displayed in To Sleep With Anger, which Ballast strongly recalls. Nor does he have the command of form or the grasp of the emotional resonance of nature of Kelly Reichardt, whose movies achieve poetic desolation with a lighter touch, and whose masterful Old Joy scored far fewer nominations on the indie-award circuit. With the proliferation of blog criticism and commentary, a rising tide of grade inflation is probably inevitable, as is a rising tide of flack. Ballast has suffered some backlash it doesn’t deserve. Someone dredged up the clapped-out debate about whether white filmmakers can do justice to black experience (they can, and vice versa). Someone else called Hammer a “rich kid” who could easily afford to distribute his own movie. With Andrew Adamson (Shrek) and Mark Johnson (Narnia) as his executive producers, no doubt it was easier for him to do that than for a young director with no industry connections, but so what? With independent film funds running dry as a bone, getting Ballast made is an achievement to be celebrated. Even Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, now widely recognized as a work of genius, didn’t get its due till decades after it was made. So let’s not crown Lance Hammer king while he’s still learning how to be a prince.

BALLAST | Written and directed by LANCE HAMMER | Produced by HAMMER and NINA PARIKH | Released by Alluvial Film Company | Sunset 5

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