Lance Hammer's remarkable, unfailingly intelligent debut film, rooted in the Mississippi Delta's vanishing way of life, tells of the fallout on three people from one man's suicide. Ballast's opening alternates between James (JimMyron Ross), a 12-year-old African-American boy roaming the vast flatscape, and Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), a big, stony-faced man sitting in his small, dark house, frozen with grief. James is alone and in trouble: He makes drug runs for a group of older teens to support his burgeoning coke habit, and is fascinated with guns. His loving mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), slaves in a nighttime cleaning job and is too anxious and exhausted to see the clues. James owes the gang money, and soon mother and son take refuge with Lawrence, whom Marlee hates with an old and bitter passion. The conflicts, truths, and, ultimately, grace and dignity that bind these three together are brought to authentic life, without Hollywood-style exaggeration, through the quiet little miracles of performance that Hammer coaxes from his non-actors. And the director's artful jump-cuts between scenes, as well as the film's abrupt ending, create just enough tension to draw you in, but leave just enough mystery to let you create your own understanding of what's happening among these three, and to form your own insights into the psyches of people trying to survive with their souls intact.
Soul survivor Ross.
Runs at Northwest Film Forum, Fri., Feb. 20–Thurs., Feb. 26. Not rated. 96 minutes.