This may be my first year actually attending the Sundance Film Festival, but I know the hallmarks of the “Sundance film” when I see one. Take a small ensemble cast of acclaimed character actors (maybe add one or two exciting young actors), and throw them in a mid-budget dramedy set in a few easily-accessible locations. Film them with thin, but essentially capable verisimilitude, pepper in some mild social commentary (just enough to feel like you’re saying something without actually doing so) and soak it in a jaunty score. It’s like fast food, ironically; just assemble as instructed, and you’ll come out with something that’s consistent, if not exactly satisfying.
The Last Shift fits this formula to a tee; it was originally meant to be an Alexander Payne project but was instead handed to Andrew Cohn (making his narrative-feature debut after helming several docs), who does his level best to navigate the happy-sad atmosphere of his predecessor. Try as it might, though, it all feels a little too thin, and its admirable attempts to touch on the more invisible effects of race, class and poverty don’t quite work.
The central subject of Cohn’s study is Stanley (Richard Jenkins), a high school dropout who’s spent nearly his entire adult life manning the night shift at Oscar’s Chicken & Fish, a modest fast-food joint in the sleepy Rust Belt town of Albion, Michigan. Now he’s getting ready to hang up his apron and retire so he can drive to Florida to be with his ailing mother. He’s a loser, baby, but one who refuses to wallow in misery; he takes tremendous pride in his work, and hopes that his upcoming replacement isn’t “some kind of deadbeat.”
The replacement in question is Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a class-conscious Black writer who’s currently on probation for defacing public property. With the pressures of providing for a young son and a girlfriend (Birgundi Baker) who’s put her own plans on hold to be a mother, Jevon has two choices: find gainful employment or go back to jail to finish his sentence. This road leads him to Oscar’s, where he and Stanley while away the hours flipping burgers and chipping away at the racial/generational divides that rest just beneath the surface of their dynamic.
Credit goes to The Last Shift for bringing up these conversations in the first place, but it does so with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Stanley’s sunny optimism comes, in part, from his ability to avoid seeing or thinking about the ways his bosses exploit his enthusiasm or the implicit racial biases that have been socialized into him. That’s an interesting angle to take, albeit one rooted in “the issue isn’t race, but class!” myopia. But Jevon, whose activism borders on the strident (Get ready for lines like “I don’t know if it’s the onions or this nonsense in Flint that’s got me crying”) feels like a contrived vehicle for clumsy discussions about white privilege.
Cohn’s stripped-down aesthetic seems to try to match the sleepy Midwestern setting, but that just makes it all feel dull. Combine that with Mark Orton’s overly twee score (which bounces through even some of the film’s more harrowing moments), and The Last Shift soullessly fills out the paint-by-numbers indie dramedy playbook.
Jenkins is a platinum-tier talent, but he loses himself a bit in all of Stanley’s tics — he scoffs, huffs and sneers through the role, desperate to sell Stanley as a sad old man with two bum knees to the point where he forgets to find the darkness that lies at the heart of the character. McGhie has a lot of potential as a performer, but like Jenkins, he’s failed by a script that has him serving more as a mouthpiece for black disenfranchisement than a fully-realized human being. Supporting players like Ed O’Neill, Allison Tolman, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph get little to do (Jenkins and Randolph are far more interesting in fellow Sundance selection Kajillionaire) with the clunky dialogue they’re given. Everyone’s been better elsewhere, even the actors it’s meant to showcase. The Last Shift feels like it should have been made five, ten years ago at the latest. As a work of deadpan serio-comedy, its beats feel as old as Stanley, and its grasp on social commentary is tenuous at best. While it gratefully avoids the easy, expected route of “unlikely opposites learning to bridge the gulf in their understanding and become friends” for a slightly more complicated resolution, the road to getting there is too shaky to be worth the trip.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It currently does not have US distribution.
Clint Worthington is a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool. He also co-hosts and produces the podcasts More of a Comment, Really… and Hall of Faces for The Spool, as well as Travolta/Cage with Nathan Rabin. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and too many Criterions.