PRINT October 2008


Ballast and Wendy and Lucy

Lance Hammer, Ballast, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Production still. James (JimMyron Ross) and Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.). Photo: Lol Crawley.

REGIONALISM HAS LONG BEEN a watchword of American independent filmmaking, predating the identity politics that shaped the movement in its heyday from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s. More often than not, it is synonymous with “the heartland,” the vast swaths of the United States that lie between, and north and south of, New York City and Los Angeles. But in a finer sense, regionalism refers to the filmic depiction of places where life is actually lived as opposed to the movie-set versions of those places that Hollywood produces. Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), two pioneering American independent films whose influences have only begun to be felt with their recent rediscoveries, might both be regarded as regional films. Loden said of the shot just after the opening of Wanda, in which the titular heroine is seen at a distance picking her way through a wasteland of Appalachian strip mines, that she wanted to show “how long it took to get from there to here.” Killer of Sheep, on the other hand, is set in Los Angeles but in a part of the city—the African-American neighborhood Watts—that was invisible as far as Hollywood movies were concerned, except as the background for a riot. One of the film’s most memorable scenes charts how long it takes two men to carry a car engine down several flights of stairs and how fast that engine smashes into useless parts when it falls off the back of a truck.

Two of the most haunting and rigorous American films of 2008, Lance Hammer’s Ballast and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, are similarly attentive to duration. Both films grow out of an acute sense of place—specifically, rural landscapes, the light that models them, and the sounds that fill them: birdcalls, the wind, freight-train rumbles and whistles, car engines on their last legs. Both are shot on film, almost entirely with available light, and the medium itself, nearing obsolescence, suggests an affinity to a history of poetic Neorealism, from Pier Paolo Pasolini to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Both eschew movie music and are wary of words, preferring the language of the body in stillness and motion. And both are concerned with money, or rather the lack of it, and with passionate attachments, although not of the romantic kind. Loss, abandonment, and resilience—just enough of the last to keep one from dying of heartbreak—they also have these in common.

Ballast, the denser of the two films, is set in the Mississippi Delta during winter: blue-gray mist rising from marshy fields; a dirt road; bare, spindly trees; a few shacks—whatever colors they once were painted nearly weathered away. The population of this bleakly beautiful stretch of land and of the nearby town, of which we see very little, is mostly African-American. One of the shacks belongs to Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.), the adjacent one to his twin brother, Darius, who has died, perhaps intentionally, of a drug overdose just before the film begins. When Darius’s body is discovered by a concerned neighbor, Lawrence lumbers out of the house and tries to put a bullet though his own grieving heart. Like so much in Ballast, whether incident or emotion, Lawrence’s suicide attempt is hidden from view. We hear the gunshot, then see the wounded man on the ground, but the act itself is elided. It is also a failure—oddly enough, the only failure that takes place within what we could call the narrative proper of the film, a narrative in which the past, and the inchoate anger and grief that surround it, is slowly excavated.

In addition to James, there are two other central characters: Darius’s widow, Marlee (Tarra Riggs), and their twelve-year-old son, James (JimMyron Ross). The story of this broken family is delivered to us in fragments. Gradually we learn that Lawrence and Darius ran a small convenience store left to them by their father. Lawrence’s whole world was bound up in Darius, but Darius fell in love with Marlee. Eventually, the marriage went bad—Marlee was into drugs, and maybe Darius was too. He abandoned Marlee and their son and went back to live with Lawrence. And then he OD’d, leaving behind a fragile, troubled boy and two adults who had nursed their jealousy and hatred of each other for years. If that sounds like the setup for a melodrama, nothing could be further from the way Hammer shapes the film.

Instead, he follows the minute changes that take place inside each of these bereft, intensely private people as they discover that to survive—economically, emotionally, spiritually—they must act as ballasts for one another. In the early scenes, the handheld camera makes its presence known, lurching and jockeying for position. But as the film goes on, it becomes more patient—it watches from oblique angles, it trails behind the characters. The camera’s discretion renders its work almost invisible, which is why the film feels intimate rather than distanced. It is as if nothing stands between us and the people on the screen. We are alert to the way Lawrence wraps his arms around his bulky torso, the way the muscles around Marlee’s mouth tighten to hold back her anger. When Marlee asks Lawrence why he never traveled and he answers, thinking of Darius, “We were going to do that together,” the sense of loss is overwhelming. These are rich and beguiling performances. That neither Smith, Riggs, nor Ross had ever before been in front of a camera suggests that Hammer, whose first feature film this is, has an immense talent for casting and directing actors.

At the Sundance Film Festival, where Ballast premiered last winter, Hammer, a California-raised Caucasian with an architecture degree who worked on visual effects for a Superman and two Batman movies (he designed digital models for Gotham City), explained that he had spent ten years traveling around the Delta region, “drawn by the beauty and sadness of the place and the resilience of the people in the face of a sorrow.” He cast the film with local people and spent three months working with them before shooting. The script was fully written, but it was never shown to the actors; Hammer asked them to find their own words—though, in any case, words matter here only insofar as they are clues to what remains unspoken. Ballast is a highly sophisticated film (Hammer cites the works of the Dardenne brothers and Robert Bresson as models), but moment by moment it is such an organic expression of the Delta and the people who live there that it feels made up on the spot.

Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy, 2008, color film in Super 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, 80 minutes. Production still. Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog, Lucy.

Wendy and Lucy was shot about as far from the Mississippi as you can get and still be in the contiguous forty-eight. The one-street Oregon town that provides the setting for Reichardt’s film is filtered through the experience of Wendy (Michelle Williams), who, like the freight trains in the opening montage, is just passing through. On her way from Indiana to Alaska, where she hopes to find work, her car breaks down—a contingency for which she hasn’t budgeted. Wendy keeps a notebook in which she meticulously subtracts each expenditure from the few hundred dollars that is all she has in the world, besides the now-useless car, the clothes in her backpack, and her dog, Lucy, the love of her life. Her finances nearly exhausted, she makes the mistake of stealing a can of pet food and is arrested. In her absence, Lucy goes missing. Wendy refuses to continue her journey until she finds her dog, and in the course of that search we get to see some less than picturesque aspects of a small town where people are hanging by their fingernails above a nonexistent safety net.

Wendy and Lucy raises the specter of two Neorealist classics by Vittorio De Sica: The Bicycle Thief (1948), in which a father and son wander around blighted postwar Rome, attempting to retrieve the stolen bike necessary to their survival, and Umberto D. (1952), the story of a penniless elderly man who tries to separate from the dog he can no longer afford to feed. Not content with the pathos of the situations, De Sica bathes both films in shamelessly heart-tugging music. Reexamining the codes of Neorealism, Reichardt ups the ante by making the vulnerability of her hero a condition not only of economics (joblessness) or relative isolation, but of the fact that she is female. The director refuses, however, to use movie music to color situations or express interiority. What music she permits comes from Wendy, who is given to humming to herself, a sound as organic and necessary as breathing. It is that sound, and the sound of Wendy’s voice calling “Lucy”—sometimes plaintively, sometimes excitedly, sometimes desperately, sometimes matter-of-factly—that is at the heart of the film. They are the unadorned sounds of love.

Reichardt’s previous features, River of Grass (1994) and Old Joy (2006), were two-handers. Wendy and Lucy is as well; the dyad is a girl and her dog. But for much of the film, Lucy is the absent object of desire; what we have on screen is either Wendy solo or in duets with various people she encounters: a kindly security guard (Walter Dalton), a garage mechanic who may or may not be trying to rip her off (Will Patton), and an insane homeless man (Larry Fessenden) who comes out of the darkness when Wendy unwisely beds down alone in the woods. The actors make the most of what are essentially cameo appearances, but Wendy and Lucy is, finally, a portrait of a young woman striking out on her own with exceptional courage and resolve, and Williams, one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood (and the most experienced actor Reichardt has worked with), gives a performance that is exceptional for its combination of straightforwardness and reserve. Reichardt shapes the film around those two qualities. The camera is often either squarely planted or following Wendy at a distance. It mimes, in its rhythms and framings, her quick, determined walk and her gaze, which is sometimes wary but never dissembling. Wendy wants to do the best for Lucy—and one fervently wants the world to do right by her.

Ballast opens in New York at Film Forum on Oct. 1. Wendy and Lucy makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27 and 28.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.