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It’s easy to see why documentary and TV director Andrew Cohn’s first narrative feature, The Last Shift, was at one time considered as a project for Alexander Payne, who remains on board as executive producer. Empathy for aging men navigating complicated crossroads in their unfulfilled lives has often shaped Payne’s films and very much applies to the terminal under-achiever played here with characteristic dimension and heart by the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins. This funny-sad chamber piece is underwhelming in cinematic terms, but its perceptive script and the incisively etched characterizations of a sterling ensemble make it warmly satisfying.
Stanley (Jenkins) is a high school dropout who has worked the graveyard shift at Oscar’s Chicken & Fish for 38 years in Albion, Michigan, a town his old buddy Dale (Ed O’Neill) says with typically blunt cynicism can be described in two words: “shit” and “hole.”
Stanley is one of those characters in movies about the American underclass who comes under the reductive general header of “sad-sack loser,” yet he’s distinguished by a pride in his work and refusal to bemoan his dead-end life that gives him a touching resilience. He even seems impervious to the thinly veiled mockery of football jocks who pick up sandwiches from his drive-through window.
Having quit his job to move to Florida and pull his ailing mother out of a retirement home, Stanley is entrusted with the training of his replacement Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a once-promising young African American writer, on probation for defacement of a public monument. Jevon’s girlfriend Sidney (Birgundi Baker) has also seen her plans to study law stalled, sacrificing her college track scholarship to stay home and take care of their young son. Jevon, however, has barely looked at the boy since getting out of county lockup.
The odd-couple interplay between straight-arrow Stanley and politically outspoken Jevon, with his eye-rolling attitude, fuels much of the shrewdly observed early humor. Stanley is reverential about adhering to the employee handbook, while Jevon is clearly too smart to be slinging sandwich patties for minimum wage and has no intention of busting his ass in a thankless court-ordered job. When his distraction causes a screw-up that draws a customer complaint, jaded manager Chaz (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, memorable recently in Dolemite Is My Name) comes down hard on Stanley, informing him that receipt of his final paycheck is conditional on him completing Jevon’s training.
While the setup seems to point to the two polar opposites finding a mutually respectful, even friendly, middle ground that opens both their eyes to other realities, Cohn has subtler, less predictable ideas in mind. To some extent, Stanley and Jevon do break the ice, but issues of racial bias, class and misguided assumptions about privilege all factor into the way the writer-director subverts expectations.
This is partly achieved by having Jevon get under Stanley’s skin by pointing up the indifference of the corporate bosses to his dedication and their willingness to exploit his long service with pay increases over the years that are pitifully out of line with inflation. But when misfortune strikes, Stanley lashes out with rash judgment at Jevon, and the retiree’s nagging new awareness of unfavorable working conditions that he never before stopped to consider prompts him to take impulsive, out-of-character action, which has regrettable consequences.
There are moments of gentle physical comedy and one brilliant laugh-out-loud sight gag involving Stanley’s purchase of a crappy used car. Cohn and his actors never push too hard on the quirks, instead sticking with minor-key humor that steadily tips over into poignancy and moments of lingering pathos. The fine character work — which includes Allison Tolman bringing her signature groundedness to Jevon’s parole officer — is backed by a deftly sketched sense of place in a Midwestern environment in which lives have been defined by dying industry, narrowing prospects and persistent racial divide.
McGhie is terrific as a young man whose intelligence works against him as much as for him; the arc of his character — from deadpan resignation through anger to a more hopeful evolution in an ending that declines tidy outcomes — is expertly played. Jenkins creates another in this superb actor’s gallery of fine-grained character portraits, hobbling around with two bum knees and without complaint until the determined optimism is wiped from Stanley’s hangdog face. The stricken expression that transforms him in the film’s final image is heart-wrenching.
While Mark Orton’s mildly jaunty music is a nice fit for Cohn’s narrative economy and lightness of touch, the director could stand to develop a stronger visual sense; the film’s flat look will make it a better fit for streaming than theatrical windows. But as a transitional step from nonfiction filmmaking, The Last Shift announces a promising voice.
Production companies: Bona Fide, Park Pictures, in association with Whitewater Films
Cast: Richard Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Birgundi Baker, Allison Tolman, Ed O’Neill
Director-screenwriter: Andrew Cohn
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, Sam Bisbee, Alex Lipschultz, Bert Kern
Executive producers: Alexander Payne, Lance Acord, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Theodora Dunlap, Franklin Carson, Wendy Neu, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, Terry Diamond, David Schwartz, John Diamond, Andrew Cohn, Kevin McGrail
Director of photography: W. Mott Hupfel III
Production designer: Adri Siriwatt
Costume designer: Anne Dawson
Music: Mark Orton
Editor: Mindy Elliott
Casting: Kim Davis-Wagner, Justine Arteta
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
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