Every year the magazines and websites I read produce a rundown of the film festivals. I can’t go to (m)any of these so this is my only way of getting news about the small films. Anyone reading this blog knows that I like the small film, the “Independent” films, and I seek them out. How does one learn about these films if they don’t read about the great films playing at the festivals? I don’t know how you people do it but I read Film Comment or Cinemascope and make mental notes.
Sundance ’08 was written as a return to form and Film Comment mentioned that a few films stood out. One of those films was Ballast, written and directed by Lance Hammer. Upon reading the synopsis, I immediately searched for information on the Hammer and found a number of interviews, all short. See, Ballast won the “Directing Award: Dramatic” for his work on this film and in reading one of his interviews he mentions the Dardenne Brothers as an influence. This is the cinematic version of a blue-light-special to me. It screams “Go there, Adam. You must see it.”
See it I did, at the New Directors/New Films Festival sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art. Ballast was the first film I looked for in the program because not only did I want to see the film but I love Walter Reade. It’s my favorite theater in the city. So, off Kelly and I went.
Ballast is about three people and how their lives are affected by the suicide of one of their family members. The film takes place in the Mississippi delta region and features non-actors.
What I liked: The story was haunting and beautiful. It’s the type of story that I like, one about people dealing with a crisis and trying to live the best they know how. Lawrence Batiste (Michael J. Smith Sr.) is found sitting, nearly catatonic, in his living room while the body of his twin brother Darius lies in the bedroom. After Lawrence’s suicide attempt we get a glimpse at his nephew James (JimMyron Ross) and James’ mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs) as they get the news. I love the realist style with the character living below or near the poverty line. So many people live this way and they are rarely represented on screen. When I see a sensitive portrait of people like that, played without sensationalism, it inspires me more than the most of my favorite films.
The performances, by people with no acting experience, were thoughtful and natural. I was amazed at how effective they were. The film was organized through improvisation with the actors and their performances were better than similar work done in Bubble. Hammer has a future with actors, if nothing else.
The film won the “Excellency in Cinematography Award: Dramatic” at Sundance ’08, and it’s obvious why. The film is beautiful, shot with a constant gray sky, often in rain, the film’s use of long lenses is exactly to my taste. The decaying landscape and the diffused light create a layer of poetry that lifts the material above it’s realist intentions. The camerawork goes from stylized and self-conscious to invisible in the first few shots, as I became wrapped up in the drama. That is powerful filmmaking. I can’t wait for Hammer’s next effort.
See this film.
What I didn’t like: I found little fault with this film. It lost some momentum towards the end, due to the heightened drama in one particular scene. My biggest issue was the opening shot. It’s hand-held and extremely so, following James as he runs into a field of geese. It’s a beautiful shot and deserves a smooth rendering. The shot was blissfully short and followed by a static shot of James watching the geese, but I was worried I was in for one of “those” movies. Lucky for me I couldn’t have been more wrong.
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