Yesterday's premier generated Sundance buzz. Bloggers are comparing Ballast to the lyrical films of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green, and the all-important Hollywood Reporter and Variety have given beaming reviews. Like Malick's work, Ballast is deliberately and poignantly shot. Like Green's work, the movie is carried by a leaden sense of place. But this time, we recognize the place—Canton Square in Christmas-glow, winter sky over barren fields, Delta rain collecting in corduroy rows...
Ballast was shot entirely in Mississippi in 2006, in the towns of Tchula, Camden, Yazoo City, Louise, Thornton, Greenwood, Silver City, Midnight and Jackson. It's a project that rallied the efforts of a 35-member Mississippi cast and a mostly Mississippi crew, including the Mississippi Film Office's Program Manager, Nina Parikh, who took a leave of absence to serve as the film's producer.
Writer/director Lance Hammer is one of the few non-Mississippian's involved in the film, but even as, or perhaps because he is an outsider, the unique intensity of the Delta profoundly moved him. "Once I was traveling through the Delta in winter, and I was intensely affected by this sense of sorrow. I carried that impression with me, and that's where I was, writing the script."
Ballast is the story of the evolving bonds between a single mom, her pre-teen son and his uncle, as they struggle to overcome poverty and loss. But according to Lance, "The narrative is just a device to carry the tonal sense. The Delta came first, the story came next."
This sentiment is echoed in the final product, a melancholic unfolding of snow geese in fields and austere winter bush. Using mostly handheld shots and natural light, Director of Photography Lol Crawly captures the stark beauty of a conflicted place on 35mm, establishing both the natural and manmade qualities of the region.
The actors were completely green, pulled out of open calls, churches and, in the case of JimMyron Ross, the Canton Boys and Girls Club. At the Q&A following the screening, they were the film's biggest sellers—guileless, genuine ambassadors of Mississippi.
JimMyron, 12 at the time of shooting, calls the film "one of my biggest dreams." His character is a bit of a delinquent, getting into fights and dabbling in drugs. Flashing the audience a winning grin, he lets us know that he found the portrayal difficult because he "likes to stay out of trouble."
Micheal J. Smith, Sr. of Yazoo City labels himself a "sports fan" who never watched much TV. But after turning out a stalwart performance as James' Uncle Lawrence, he says, "I have more respect for the actors I see on TV."
Oxford's Johnny McPhail plays neighbor John. He jokes about how, at open call, he spotted Micheal sitting in the corner "looking like a big teddy bear. I knew that guy was bound to get cast, so I just went over to hang out with him." Sure enough, both men were with us in Park City, celebrating the film's success.
But perhaps the most ecstatic was Clinton's Tarra Riggs. She plays Marlee, James's mother, and since Ballast, has continued to act in feature films. Looking adorably "Hollywood" in a trendy hat and big sunglasses, she gushed, "I always knew if anyone ever came to me and gave me an opportunity to give them everything I had, I would." In Ballast, her performance is nearly flawless. Her emotionally layered character, in large part, drives the narrative.
Other metro-area cast and crew include:
Ventress Bonner as Jarel
Jerel Levanway-Production Designer
Sam Watson-Sound Mixer
Francine Thomas Reynolds- Casting Director
Todd Stauffer- Production Manager
Mary Goodson-Art Director
Spencer Cryder—Additional Assistant Director
Len Stanga - Gaffer
Ray Green- Carpenter
Joy Parikh-Production Coordinator & Accountant
Jason Marlow-Video Assist, Pre-production Coordinator
Jerry Lousteau-Animal Wrangler, Dog Trainer, Music Supervisor, Talent Scout
Domini Bradford, Patty Kurts Magee, Hunter Magee – Caterers and craft service
Valerie Blakey, Thabi Moyo, Lorena Manriquez—Production Assistants
Anita Modak-Truran; Butler, Snow, O'Mara Stevens, and Cannada, PLLC—Legal Services
How exciting, Cheree! We're hearing the buzz about "Ballast" all the way back here.
A personal aside from me: In addition to Todd's involvement, my brother, Ken Ladd, coordinated transportation for "Ballast," and my sister-in-law Shay O'Neal was Jim Myron's teacher/chaperone on the set. Ken's listed in the crew on IMDB, but Shay isn't. ;-)
Y'all have fun; the Mississippi presence out there this year must be very exciting. And it makes all that hard work and stress back in 2006 fulfilling for everyone involved, I'm sure.
Here's Anita Modak-Truran's piece about Ballast in The Clarion-Ledger today. She's out at Sundance as well.
Mississippi is well represented this year!
Here's what The Boston Globe film guy says about Ballast today:
Aside from the Polanski documentary, the best film I've seen after three days has been Lance Hammer's "Ballast," a stripped-down drama whose narrative takes about 30 minutes to come into focus. But even the haze sort of broke my heart. The setting is - well, even once the movie's over you're never entirely sure where you are. It's the South. And it seems deep. (The closing credits confirm it's a sunless Mississippi Delta.) The characters - a single mother (Tarra Riggs), her young surreally derelict son (JimMyron Ross), and his neglecting father's suicidal twin (Michael J. Smith Sr.) - are all fighting for their lives. Not medically, but dispositionally. This is one of the most complicated depictions I've seen of the everyday will to live.
Hammer is a white director filming African-American lives. But unlike too many movies with a similar racial dynamic, "Ballast" is not a work of guilt or condescension. The filmmaking makes a complete immersion in these characters' lives. There's little dialogue and less explication, but you understand everything that's going on and are surprised by some of what does happen. In that sense, the movie's jumpy style, gorgeous sound design, and unvarnished acting (Riggs is astonishing) owe more to Europe. Its devotion to the complicated humanity of the black underclass owes something to Charles Burnett, too. This is a behavioral triumph. These three impact each other. And, deceptively, Hammer takes them off a directorial string, so the film seems to spring from life as it's lived - a different kind of independent filmmaking, but independent all the same.
This is also one of a few American movies that isn't set in New York or Los Angeles. The Delta's gray and dampness seep into your bones. You could send a distress signal, but who'd see it? The entrenched location dramatically redefines the festival's theme. Film really does take place.
And the Chicago Tribune:
“Ballast,” written and directed by Lance Hammer. This is the standout feature, a beautiful little poem set in rural Mississippi, where one man’s suicide causes a profound ripple effect in the lives of his twin brother, his ex-lover and her at-risk 12-year-old son. The plain-spoken, unadorned filmmaking style (no musical score, much intimate hand-held camerawork) recalls the work of the Dardenne brothers, makers of “L’Enfant.” But the setting, the economic straits and the faces are purely American.
More praise for "Ballast" (and the Mississippi folk involved with it), from the Village Voice:
Even more striking is Ballast, a debut feature not only for writer-director Lance Hammer but also for much of its crew and its entire principal cast—remarkable nonprofessional actors recruited on location in Canton, Mississippi. Like Frozen River, it is a story of mother and son trying to make ends meet, though where Hunt’s film is decidedly straightforward and matter-of-fact, Hammer’s is fragmentary, mysterious and poetic, revealing its central characters and relationships gradually and from a distance, as if we were entering into a private dream.
Ballast is a movie marked by the most unusual mix of inspirations: Charles Burnett’s impressionistic renderings of black American life, the Dardenne brothers’ neo-realist city symphonies, and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ ecstatic widescreen exploration of rural vistas. But Hammer has digested those influences and formed from them a wholly original meditation on lost souls trying to gain a foothold in a bleak, treacherous landscape. It is, I think, the single most impressive film to premiere at Sundance since Half Nelson in 2006, and the high-water mark by which all others in and out of this year’s competition should be judged.
And from Variety:
The 24th annual Sundance Film Festival won't be remembered for big sales, but it may be remembered as the year that buyers wised up.
At the festival's halfway mark, the most talked-about titles are ones that came into Park City with neither cast nor buzz. Audiences are raving about "Ballast," a drama set in the Mississippi Delta written and directed by Lance Hammer; "The Wave," a German-language thriller in which a high school teacher's sociology experiment goes awry; and the Spanish-language Andes survival doc "Stranded."
Meanwhile, Sundance's movie-star titles are starting to look a lot like studio refugees seeking indie cover.
OK, here's a negative one from Creative Loafing that doesn't believe the "Ballast" hype:
Ballast is a film that plays off of understatement in trying to develop an inner-personal look at the fractured lives of these three characters. It is at times beautiful but seemingly always boring. If I were to wander into a student film festival and catch this, I might not be so harsh. But this is Sundance and what I expect is an effort not grounded in mediocrity.
Hammer’s skill in framing a painfully real rural Mississippi town should not be lost, but what it seems to be more often than not is space filler and not masterfully sculpted puzzle pieces. And lost in the filler are some truly worthwhile moments and performances by an all nonactor cast.
The idea of man dealing with the forsaken family of his twin brother should ooze with compelling possibilities. What we get are endless amounts of painful dialogue, unnecessary montages and cinema as stale as a low fat Saltine cracker.
I wanted to respect Hammer’s work for what he was trying to do, but the more I think about it, I feel like his great accomplishment with Ballast was fooling people into seeing something that wasn’t there. A good idea is worth a reward, but not when it fails to deliver on its potential.