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Sundance: Ballast

January 19, 2008  |  10:59pm

It’s ironic that earlier today I invoked the names of the Dardenne brothers when describing The Visitor, because today I saw a film that is directly and obviously inspired by their films, particularly La Promesse, The Son, and L’Enfant. Ballast is the debut film by writer-director Lance Hammer, and it features a handheld camera, only diegetic music (just a tad), a young tough who rides a motorcycle, and a poignant abrupt cut to black at the end. It’s a stylistic imitation, yes, but Hammer’s story is all his own, working through some of the same themes that interest the Dardennes, with the same care for honest detail. I can’t think of another American filmmaker who has been so inspired to work in this vein.

Unfolding with well-placed ellipses and patient exposition, Ballast is the story of an African-American man whose brother has just died. The two of them lived together in a small town in Mississippi next to a young boy and his mother. The boy roams the rural landscape getting into trouble, and the connection between the boy, his mother, the man, and his brother is revealed slowly, not as a matter of suspense but because the screenplay doesn’t force the characters to explain themselves simply. As with the films of the Dardennes—as with real life—we just have to watch for a while and piece things together ourselves.

It’s a remarkable debut. I’m looking forward to what he does next.

(Ballast was just picked up for distribution by Celluloid Dreams (a small international distributor) and will screen in competition at Berlinale.)

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