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Sundance '08: day three: losin' it

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 19, 2008 08:52 PM

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It's not easy. This place can be a grind. Movie after movie. Day after day. The behind-schedule shuttles. The Ugg boots. And Burberry scarves. Publicists pulling you in a dozen directions. Chasing hype. Avoiding hype. Figuring out just how many layers Mary-Kate Olsen is wearing - and how her pocket-size qualifies as adult. After a while, you come close to collapse. I was at that point a little earlier today. I usually lose it in the privacy of my own room - or very discreetly while waiting in line for a tea somewhere.

But I've never lost it in the dark, not here. Today I did. It was somewhere near the beginning of Lance Hammer's "Ballast," a stripped-down drama whose narrative takes about 30 minutes to come into focus. But even the haze sort of broke my heart. The setting is, well, even once the movie's over you're never entirely sure where you are. It's the South. And it seems deep. (The closing credits confirm it's the Mississippi Delta.) The characters - a single mother (Tarra Riggs), her derelict son (JimMyron Ross), and his neglecting father's suicidal twin (Michael J. Smith Sr.) - are all fighting for their lives. Not medically, but dispositionally.

Movies like this have shown up at this festival before (drugs, guns, poverty in African- American lives; from 1994's "Fresh" to 2006's "Half Nelson"), usually from sensitive white directors. "Ballast" is different, closer to the Dardenne brothers than to most American movies. Hammer uses hand-held photography, little dialogue, and jumpy non-rhythmic editing to immerse us in these characters' lives. The prevailing palette is rainy gray. And you could use the plot to lace a shoe, it's so thin. Still, the film has a gathering artistic and emotional force that's hard to shake - even as all the characters are doing is trying to keep on keeping on. None of the three principles are professional actors, but Riggs is a true force of nature - volatile, acutely sensitive, industrious. She earned my tears and all my heart. The movie needs a loving American distributor right now.


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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

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Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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