Dir-scr: Lance Hammer. US. 2008. 96mins.
Ballast reminds us that you can find poetry in the unlikeliest and the saddest of places. The grim, grey and impoverished Mississippi Delta in winter is the setting and, to a great extent, the subject of the feature debut of writer-director-editor Lance Hammer. The spare story reveals the fragments of a family battered by life.

Minimalist and meditative, Ballast will win critical support on the festival circuit for the heartfelt portrait of its landscape and characters. Hammer and his executive producers (studio veterans Mark Johnson and Andrew Adamson) could not have chosen a less commercial subject. Even with reviews that cite the film's ambition and achievement, which it is sure to get, Ballast probably won't do much better at the box office than the films by the Dardennes brothers and Bruno Dumont whose influence it bears. Box office prospects in Europe are likely to be better. Ballast's uniqueness should give it a strong position in home video.

The film surveys the grey skies and the long puddles in empty fields that extend to the horizon, and then moves to the event that triggers the action to follow - the death of Darius from an overdose of pills. His twin brother Lawrence (Smith) also has a gunshot wound that almost kills him. Watching it all is 12-year-old James (Ross) who lives in a trailer with his struggling single mother Marlee (Riggs), a janitor. James is drawn to what looks like the exciting life of local drug dealers to whom he is in debt.

James sees an opportunity to extorts money out of the grieving Lawrence and also learns that Lawrence's dead brother was his father, who abandoned him and his mother. In the meantime, Marlee hires a lawyer to seize her ex-husband's property. When the drug dealers threaten James, he eventually shoots at them. In revenge, they beat the boy and his mother.

Hope rises when Marlee takes over Lawrence 's neglected store, and falls when she recoils from Lawrence's unwanted advances. Lol Crawley's poetic camera lingers over everything, whether it's the muddy landscape or the pained faces of the local non-professionals in the cast.

With only available light, the mood is as dark as the image. Without a score, the film avoids the obvious delta cliches. The drug dealers' slang is near-incomprehensible, yet Hammer does not provide sub-titles. This is a tough story, and Hammer does not make it easy to watch.

Hammer's slow-paced direction (reminiscent of Charles Burnett's touch in Killer of Sheep, 1977, and even slower than The Son by the Dardennes or Flandres by Bruno Dumont) feeds the overwhelming feeling that people don't expect much from a place where they haven't been given much, and not much happens. Even Katrina didn't visit here. Hammer doesn't insert humour to relieve the leaden mood, and his script's persuasive realism comes from an odd blend of surprise and inevitability.

As Lawrence, Micheal J Smith, Jr. is convincing as a man collapsing under the weight of a personal tragedy. Jimmyron Ross brings a vulnerability to the role of a lonely young teenager at a pivotal point in his life. In the role of Marla, Tarra Riggs boils with an anger she can't shed.

With its dignity and drama, Ballast is likely to inspire imitators among US film-makers, if only because so many stories, like those in Ballast, are never told, and so much conventional cinema can't tell them honestly or effectively. Lance Hammer has set the bar high.

Production companies/backers
Alluvial Film Company (US)

International sales
Celluloid Dreams
(33) 1 49 70 03 70

US sales
William Morris Independent
(1) 310 859 4000

Lance Hammer
Nina Parikh

Executive producers
Andrew Adamson
John J Hammer
Mark Johnson
Aimee Shieh

Lol Crawley

Production designer
Jerel Levanway

Lance Hammer

Main cast
Micheal J Smith, Jr
Jimmyron Ross
Tarra Riggs
Johnny McPhail