It is winter in the Mississippi Delta, and the fields are fallow under dead skies and barren trees thrust up stark from the muck. If it were summer, the sky would be clear and the crops would be green and the soil would burn with life, but summer is far away. A boy moves across the mud and water, and he runs toward a flock of resting birds, making them jump to frightened flight tilting through the gray light, just to make them do it, just so something else knows he's alive.
Lance Hammer's Ballast, premiering at the Sundance film festival, is already earning comparisons to the work of European filmmakers like The Dardenne Brothers and Christian Mungiu -- the camera is hand-held, the emotions are at arm's length. Working with non-professional actors, using available light and actual locations, Hammer shows us a world and the people who live there. In time, we figure out how these people are connected, and how they fail to connect. Lawrence (Micheal Smith, Jr.) sits in a darkened home, silent, as a neighbor checks in because Lawrence and his brother haven't been seen in a while, while Marlee (Tarra Riggs) works hard to provide a life for her son James (Jimmyron Ross), even as he drifts towards trouble. There's a link between these three characters, but we are left to figure it out over time, just as they have to figure it out for themselves.
People mock 'Sundance films,' or joke that "'Sundance' spelled backwards is 'massive depression.'" The reality of the matter is that if mainstream film offers us escape, independent cinema offers a necessary escape from escapism. Movie characters don't seem to worry about paying the bills; most moviegoers do. But films like Ballast -- concerned with struggle, loss, poverty and wounded hearts -- are easily ignored and dismissed. Bruised from a fight, Marlee gets fired from her custodial job because her appearance would upset customers. She rages and despairs at the loss of a bad, low-paying job, because it's all she had, her firing literally adding insult to injury: "Like the motherf***ers even know that I'm there! I'm invisible to them." And she is invisible to them; Ballast doesn't just confront us with her howling pain, but also with our role in it.