Editor’s note: Ballast opens 1 October at New York’s Film Forum, and moves to other cities beginning 17 October.
“I gotta report a death.” John (Johnny McPhail) is on the phone, having just walked in on a bleak scene. A young man lies on his bed, turned away from the camera, apparently stinking up the small house where Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) now sits, staring at a TV turned off. Unable to rouse a response from Lawrence, who holds a blanket to his chin, John steps outside. At that moment, a gunshot draws John back inside, where he finds Lawrence bleeding on the floor, a bullet in his chest.
These first odd moments of Ballast drop you into a deeply felt, barely articulated plot. Set against a stark rural Mississippi Delta landscape that stretches endlessly to a grey sky, the action is mostly mundane. When an ambulance arrives to take Lawrence to the hospital, it’s not yet clear that the dead man is his twin brother Darius, a suicide. It’s also not clear who’s watching the local authorities bring news of the death, but his view is obscured by curtains. It turns out that James (JimMyron Ross) is Darius’ 12-year-old son, worried to see his mother Marlee (Tara Riggs) hear the news, her arms wrapped hard across her chest as she comes back toward the house. It’s hard to read her posture precisely, an ambiguity that puts you in the boy’s position, not quite sure how to respond or how to feel.
The tensions among these relatives emerge, mostly slowly and sometimes in spurts. As soon as Lawrence gets back from the hospital, he notes that his back door window’s been broken; mere hours later, it seems, James pushes his way inside, Lawrence’s gun in his hand. “Why’d you steal my gun?” Lawrence asks. Pointing it at his uncle, James asks after Lawrence’s dog, a half wolf named Juno (“Is he mean?”), before he asks to see his gunshot wound, a dark hole from the slug, another scar from where the doctors, he explains, “took part of my lung.” Lawrence—a failed suicide—appears a ravaged cipher, his body speaking proverbial volumes.
It’s only later, when James studies Darius’ driver’s license, which he has hidden away in a stand of weeds, that you realize how perverse and profound this moment might be for the boy: his uncle looks exactly like his father. At home, it becomes apparent that Marlee holds residual anger at her ex and has a tender, if minimalist relationship with her son (she works long hours scrubbing urinals, a maid who, she complains later, feels “invisible” to clients). James struggles with his own isolation, finding role models in his crack addict father (his decision to smoke Darius’ pipe comprises a few seconds of underwhelming screen time, one of several experiments with so-called adulthood, not the sensational turning point it might be a more conventional film). James tries to model his behavior on that of tough-talking older boys who deal drugs and shake down weaker kids for money. When they try to take James’ video game, he pulls Lawrence’s gun, surprising them and himself, earning their enmity and an eventual, brutal payback.
Built on elegant, spare, sometimes breathtaking visuals, Ballast explores emotional disconnections but never elucidates them. Repeated shots through windshields as Lawrence or Marlee drive—furiously, it seems—show the nowhere of the Delta, dreary and endless. James rides a yellow motorbike, buzzing loudly in long following shots. Confronting Lawrence as they both stand before the chain link pen that holds Juno, Marlee blames him for keeping his brother “caught in some sick little prison of yours,” their twinny closeness still a threat and a mystery.
Marlee, a recovering addict herself, falls into her own depression, but only briefly. Determined to look out for James, she pulls herself out of bed and adopts a stoic reserve, offering to take over the running of the store and gas station Lawrence shared with Darius (passed on from their father). It appears only to attract a customer or two a day, but it provides structure and routine, a way out of the aimlessness of their mutual resentment and loneliness. In turn, Lawrence appears alternately angry and depressed, slowly coming to terms with obligations and sorting out desires. When James wonders how he’s different from Darius, Lawrence points to “little things.” He and the boy make their way through a swampy wooded area, walking the dog on a leash, as Lawrence elaborates: “I’m a half inch taller. He’s better at math, things like that.”
As Ballast refuses closure, it offers instead a desolate sort of hope. It is the “little things” that distinguish Lawrence, James, and Marlee’s lives, the “little things” that offer glimpses inside their experiences. Struggling to define themselves, they find one another.