The American independent film movement has been dominated over the past half-decade by slightly quirkier, more ramshackle versions of what's on broadcast television any given night of the week. Festivals and art-houses are jammed with style-poor movies about dysfunctional families and vaguely disaffected youngsters, all of whom seem to have strange hobbies, horrible fashion sense, and a knack for talking only when they have something nonsensical and/or pithy to say. So given the competition, it's easy to cling fast to a film like Lance Hammer's debut feature Ballast, which is all about atmospheric mood-spinning, and clearly aspires to a higher form of art. But though Ballast has more in common with the austere foreign cinema of the Dardennes brothers than it does with Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, or Napoleon Dynamite, Hammer's small-town wallow—in which characters suffer in stillness and silence—is itself a kind of art-house cliché.
There's a terrific short film buried in Ballast. Michael J. Smith Jr. plays a hulking Mississippi convenience store owner who reacts to the suicide of his twin brother by retreating into stasis. Then out of the blue, the dead man's ex-wife Tarra Riggs and drug-addicted son JimMyron Ross show up at Smith's doorstep, asking for a place to stay and a piece of the business. Smith and Riggs have never liked each other, but they both think that Ross—who has gotten on the bad side of some local drug dealers—deserves a chance to turn his life around, so they commit themselves to home-schooling him, while dancing tentatively around the idea of sharing a life together.
Hammer has a nice eye, and his premise develops engagingly in the final half hour, as he raises provocative questions about whether one man can truly step in for another. But it takes the poignancy of the final scenes to redeem what comes before. For most of its first hour, Ballast stays in "guy walks around" mode: Smith and his makeshift family amble from one crummy-looking Delta location to another, occasionally mumbling a line of dialogue that gives neither the audience nor the other characters any useful information. Granted, Hammer is conducting a spiritual inquiry here, examining the lives of those who've committed themselves to being lonely. Ballast means to capture the rhythms of everyday life, among people who've lost the knack for social interaction. But even in everyday life, folks tend to be a lot better about getting to the point.