LAST WEEK my brother and I were downtown. The sky was gray and sodden, it was beginning to rain, and everyone on the street looked miserable. He remarked that everything about the scene—the people, the sky, the lighting—made him feel terrible. That same feeling hangs heavy while watching Ballast. Director Lance Hammer and cinematographer Lol Crawley are really good at what they do, and what they do here is establish a tone of barren despair that never lets up. (I'm not the only one who's impressed: Both Hammer and Crawley got nods at Sundance, where the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.) But even I—champion of romantic comedies and feel-good movies—still ended up liking Ballast. Despair can be lovely.

The characters (and the acting, skillfully performed by untrained newcomers) add the warmth that makes the film bearable and even beautiful. Twelve-year-old James (Jim Myron Ross) is a loner who gets mixed up in guns and crack; his mother Marlee (Tarra Riggs) tries to keep the walls from tumbling down; a man named Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) mourns the suicide of his brother with an attempt of his own; and all three lives become intertwined in an attempt to rise above the hands they've been dealt. The film is slow, and the scenes are languid—but a story unfolds in a way that makes these characters real people worth giving a damn about.

While little hope is offered in the film, one cares about the characters enough that it's hard not to conjure up a happy ending anyway—there could be one here, somewhere off screen, where the clouds break and the sun pours through to lighten this dark world and these hard lives. These characters are good people trying to do good by themselves and each other. It's their world that isn't cooperating.