A quiet indie look at suicide's survivors

JimMyron Ross as James, Tarra Riggs as his mother, Marlee, in "Ballast," a perceptive character study set in the Mississippi Delta.
JimMyron Ross as James, Tarra Riggs as his mother, Marlee, in "Ballast," a perceptive character study set in the Mississippi Delta.
Posted: November 14, 2008

A suicide, unexpected and unexplained. The survivors, emotionally flat as the Mississippi Delta where they exist, immobilized, as if in suspended animation.

Ballast is a quiet indie film in which the suicide victim's identical twin, estranged wife and son are knocked to the mat by grief, and struggle to find their feet and their wind.

What this unclassifiable story may lack in decibels, it has in emotional depth. At once a mystery, a family drama, a snapshot of children at risk, Ballast is an unusually perceptive character study more eloquent in action than in dialogue.

Lance Hammer's feature debut takes its title from a strand of dialogue that sticks out like a cowlick. A teenage delinquent describes a solidly built man - Lawrence, the shellshocked twin of Darius the suicide - of having "ballast," that is, balance.

Ballast is precisely what Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), Marlee (Tarra Riggs), Darius' embittered spouse, and James (JimMyron Ross), Darius' gangsta-in-training 12-year-old, conspicuously lack. Hammer's actors, nonprofessionals all, register on the heart in ways that movie stars cannot.

Lawrence, Marlee and James are lost. Questions scud over them like the flock of geese above. Why did Darius do it? Can they avoid his fate? Can his survivors, isolated in grief and anger, come together to balance and support?

Hammer tells his story in wintry vignettes that range from dark night of the soul to new morning.

Lawrence wants to end it all. Marlee wants Darius' share of the family business, a convenience store and gas station. Fatherless James rehearses manhood by stealing money to buy drugs. Addiction runs in the family. So does resolve.

Despite the narrative details, Ballast never becomes a pity party. It follows three ordinary people who see wrong and try to do right, the basis of any act of heroism. No bells, no whistles, no special effects. Just lives lived and hopes cautiously kindled. Just seesawing characters who find ballast on the fulcrum of another survivor.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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