Ballast is, according to IMDB, set in the Mississippi Delta area. Reading this was a surprise to me, as the landscape and chilly atmosphere of the film really reminded me of rural Canada, or somewhere in the northern prairies of the states (CN railcars are featured in several shots too, but I guess they go all over the continent). In some respects, the South does fit better with the primarily African-American cast—for some reason, I found it hard to picture there being a large population of African-Americans in rural North Dakota, maybe I'm wrong.
Anyways, racial profiling aside, let's talk about the film. If I were to give it a rating out of ten, I think I'd say a 7. Not bad, but nothing that curled my toes. It is filled with a pretty tragic cast of characters, poverty seems to be an overwhelming force in most of their lives. The plot of the film is very minimal, and basically follows the banal sufferings of three main protagonists.
I think that it is really important for film to represent these more "authentic" (and, no doubt, more common) experiences of "real" people. Our culture has a surplus of representations of how tough high school is for rich white girls. However, I am at the same time always a little suspicious of these glimpses at the poor and downtrodden produced by wealthy intellectuals. My attention quickly turns away from a desire to learn about the characters’ experiences to a critical analysis of the filmmaker’s motivations for showing these experiences to us. Perhaps this is a leftover from my art school days, when superficial Marxist analysis was drilled into our heads. However, some films work in a way that lets me get past this suspicion—Pasonlini’s films, Ermanno Olmi’s, Harmony Korine’s, etc. This one didn’t. I’m still suspicious. I think my problem with Ballast is that, while it may engage with the misery of the majority of Americans' lives, it does not offer a what Pasonlini and Co. offer—an agency, creativity and beauty within these tragic figures. These characters seem empty, powerless and worthy of pity. This is often how wealthy people represent the poor.
All that being said, Ballast is a very beautiful film. There are some gorgeous, lonely, heart-breaking shots in it that made watching it worthwhile. This is Lance Hammer’s first film, and so his character development may mature. However, at present, I think I’d suggest waiting for more by Lol Crawley (the cinematographer) than more by Hammer.