Ballast / Within seconds of its opening, the film Ballast evokes two cinematic masterpieces, and neither feels remotely forced. No mean feat. Maybe that’s why the film cleaned up at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, taking Best Director and Best Cinematography honors for Lance Hammer and Lol Crawley. As happens too often, however, local audiences never got a chance to see Ballast on the big(ish) screen, a loss that can and should be remedied Friday through Monday at the Doris.
Ballast is an ensemble piece with a twist—few of the cast members, and none of the featured players, are professional actors. That doesn’t stop Hammer from coaxing beautifully subtle performances out of them in a quiet, intense drama about loss and survival in a poor Mississippi Delta township.
The film concerns a hulking, quiet man named Lawrence in the immediate aftermath of his twin brother’s suicide. The dead brother’s wife and son come into Lawrence’s life in new, often bizarre ways in the weeks that follow.
It all sounds pretty boring, probably. In fact, Ballast is riveting. That’s thanks to some gorgeous cinematography on the part of Crowley, but this is fundamentally a coming-out party for director Hammer. The film evokes the best of Terrence Malick from the first shot (of a young boy charging into a flock of geese), and the resemblance holds throughout— the effect is not so much homage as the sense that Hammer is Malick’s heir. Every word of dialogue feels freighted with nuance here, every footfall and distant barking dog loaded with uncanny power.
The other unmistakable comparison here is to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Ballast does feel a bit like a paen to that film, and not only because Burnett’s 1977 film also used amateur black actors almost exclusively—the films share a visual language as well as a wandering yet somehow relentless pace.Whether Ballast will, in time, take on the mythical aura that surrounds Killer of Sheep is uncertain; what is certain is that this will be your last opportunity anytime soon to see it in a theater.
Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania, Fri 1/30–Sun 2/1, 1 & 7:30pm, Mon 2/2 7:30pm, $5–$7, 532-8768