In addition to Flight of the Red Balloon, I decided to check out another film from 2008 that I missed during its initial release. Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer) is a quiet surprise, an extraordinarily small-scale film that ends up boiling down to three main characters whose relationship is slowly revealed, scene by scene. This makes for some tough going at the beginning; we don’t know what these characters mean to one another and why they behave to one another in the ways that they do. The device feels a little bit glib—too deliberately obtuse. But once things begin to come into focus at about the thirty-five minute mark Ballast becomes a compelling and rich domestic drama. You don’t even have to wait that long to discover that it’s also a starkly beautiful film to look at: the screengrab above is taken from the opening shot. (Set in rural Mississippi, this is a Southern film that looks like no other—it’s cloaked in steel greys and sharp, cold, early-morning blues.)
Ballast is also a welcome variation on the “rural poverty thriller” subgenre that has sprouted up in recent years (ex. Winter’s Bone, Frozen River, etc.). But while those two films seem sickly fascinated with the desperate living conditions of their characters (“she’s butchering squirrels for dinner—gross!”), Ballast is refreshingly matter-of-fact about its characters being poor and being no more or less noble, hardened, salty, or wise for it. Their poverty isn’t a plot point for its own sake, nor is it something for us to gawk at or be horrified by; it’s just the backdrop for what we see of their lives. This is a film that respects its characters. It doesn’t gawk at them or pity them or make them suffer needlessly in order to show off their endurance. It’s content to watch as these three wounded people go through the grinding daily work of trying to make a life together.