Sunday, January 10, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Last Shift

The Last Shift
directed by Andrew Cohn
This indie film is worthwhile watching despite some occasionally muddled themes. I appreciated that this movie didn't neatly resolve everything like an old episode of Scooby Doo or one of those ABC Afternoon Specials. Life is not like that. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes we don't know or agree on who the bad guys are. I thought The Last Shift was realistic, both in casting and in the character depiction and reactions. 
The writing sagged near the end. As mentioned, if you like solid conclusions where everything makes sense and everyone gets what he or she "deserves" then this movie is not that. The Last Shift is also, purposely or not, an extended herky-jerky exposition on why the "class first" focus of people like say Bernie Sanders, doesn't often work in the American political economy. 
This film is set in Albion, Michigan. Stanley (Richard Jenkins) is the night manager of an Albion location of a regional fast food franchise, Oscar's Chicken and Fish (and apparently burgers as well). 
In what could be a nod to co-actor Ed O'Neill's role of Al Bundy, Stanley took this job more or less right out of high school and has remained there for the next forty years or so, give or take. Starting at just over $3/hr back in the day, Stanley has managed to grow his salary to the princely rate of just over $13/hr. Real ambitious hard charging dude, Stanley is. Not.
Stanley has no money for frivolities. Stanley doesn't have a car. He lives in a flophouse. And apparently romance and/or marriage have passed by old Stanley. Stanley's idea of fun is hanging out with his garrulous former high school buddy Dale (Ed O'Neill) and remembering the good old days.
Perhaps because he can't take pride in his non-existent professional growth and authority, the phlegmatic Stanley has repressed any self-awareness. Stanley believes that being a working man is reward enough. Stanley reminisces about ketchup shortages and opines on the influence of age and sex on condiment choices. Stanley has awkward conversations with high school kids, blissfully unaware that his earnestness, lack of success, and seeming servility are wildly humorous to them.
Stanley's mother is in a Florida nursing home because Stanley's dominant and more successful brother put her there. Stanley disagreed with that decision. Stanley's mother's mental and physical conditions have deteriorated. Stanley intends to retire and move to Florida to take care of his mother with the little money that he has saved. Stanley is looking forward to his last check and maybe a retirement bonus. During his final three days Stanley must train his replacement, one Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie). Otherwise, well he might not get that bonus.
Jevon is a young college age Black man who made some mistakes and discovered exactly how unforgiving the system is. Jevon did a short stint in jail for defacing a statue and going the wrong way on an escalator while supposedly resisting arrest. It's strongly implied that were Jevon not Black his actions might have been seen as youthful hijinks.  Certainly Jevon is aware of the double standards that he faces.
Paroled after ten months, Jevon is caught up in the racist prison-industrial complex which he previously railed against in his blog posts, podcasts and high school newspaper. Jevon is a writer experiencing writer's block. Jevon's case workers don't care about his writings, his search for meaning, his sardonic cool pose, or his expositions on autocracy and late stage capitalism. They want him employed. Jevon is far too intelligent for the jobs available which is why he keeps quitting or getting fired. This is no longer acceptable to the powers that be.
If Jevon can't stay employed his parole officer and counselor will, gleefully (parole officer) or reluctantly (counselor), violate his parole and remand him back to jail. Jevon is also a young father. His girlfriend Sydney (Birgundi Baker) is slowly losing patience with him. She wants to know that she can count on Jevon. But she doesn't see a lot of evidence that that's the case. Decisions, decisions.
Jevon is hired to be Stanley's replacement by the no-nonsense local franchise manager Shazz (Da'Vine Joy Randolph in an understated and spot on performance) Over the next three days the two men may learn something from each other. Or they may not. These are not larger than life characters. 
The characters felt real to me, whether it was Dale sneering at Jevon's name, Jevon looking at Stanley as an example of what not to be thirty years down the line, or Stanley's indignant and explosive rejection of the idea that racism even exists, even as he hides his resentments at taking orders from a younger Black woman manager or covers up worse secrets from the past. Jevon is an inquisitive sort who doesn't mind asking questions of anyone. Stanley is not a self-reflective man. Jenkins deftly portrays Stanley as deluded, naive, sympathetic and contemptible all at the same time. This is not as big of a shift as you might think. 
This movie finds humor in fast food situations and for that matter aging, but it's not a comedy. Don't expect consistent laughs. The Jevon: Sydney relationship started out flirting with stereotypes but fortunately took a different tack. This film could have said more about race, class, capitalism, and opportunity but at crucial points much like Stanley it throws up its hands and grimaces.
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