It takes guts, as well as skill, to make a drama that allows the audience to get its bearings gradually. Ballast, written and directed by Lance Hammer, brings three troubled characters in the Mississippi Delta to rich, gnarled, vivid life: They're walking enigmas who come into focus moment by moment, and that journey of discovery forces us to strip away all our cliché notions of race and poverty in the Deep South. A portly, forlorn man (Michael J. Smith Sr.) sits on his couch, nearly catatonic, as the body of his twin brother lies dead in the next room. A boy of about 12 (JimMyron Ross) the dead man's son rushes in, waving a gun. He could be a baby thug out of South Central, yet moments later he is cradled by his mother (Tarra Riggs), his inner wound as stark as his threat.
Ballast has images of pristine spareness that keep leaping forward, a style that owes a debt to the Dardenne brothers, only without their voguish leftist despair; this is like the Dardennes doing Faulkner. As the movie comes into focus, you feel the lives of the characters echoing backward through time. The brothers, it turns out, owned and operated a roadside convenience store, and the tattered marriage of one of them wedged the two apart. As for the boy, his desire to belong led him to kids he should have avoided. Ballast, as its title hints, is about depressed, knocked-over lives that need, and find, a new balance. The final shot, of the three characters now united, may be the quietest affirmation of life I've ever seen in a movie, and one of the truest. A–