A breezy yet bittersweet little drama about an aging white fast-food worker (Richard Jenkins) who’s tasked with training his young black replacement (Shane Paul McGhie) after 38 years behind the counter of Albion, Michigan’s shittiest “burger” joint, Andrew Cohn’s “The Last Shift” has all the hallmarks of an insufferably pat story about the search for common ground in America. And the evidence only continues to mount throughout the first half of the film, as each new plot detail conspires to flatter your cynicism.
Stanley is an old-fashioned sort who acts like he’s the mayor of Oscar’s Chicken and Fish, mistakes his new trainee for a criminal, and does everything in his limited power to be “OK, boomer”-ed into oblivion. Jevon is a rebellious parolee who disrespects authority, hangs with a “difficult” crowd, and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in supporting his ex-girlfriend (Birgundi Baker) or their young son. What are the odds that such wildly different people — crossing paths as they circle the same drain — might learn something “beautiful” from each other in a way that reaffirms their complacency in the capitalistic system that hobbles them both?
Not so fast. As Stanley inches closer to “The Last Shift,” Cohn’s shrewd and agile script begins to crank up the volume until these quiet lives of desperation are distorted into something bracingly unexpected. Moments of dissonance are woven into the movie from the start, as Stanley flails to present his workaday dignity as a great American drama. He boasts about the creation of the “Stanwich” with a worrying lack of self-awareness, he talks to the laughing jocks who roll into his drive-thru like he’s their coach, oblivious to the fact that the joke is on him, and he name-drops the restaurant’s absent owner with a reverence that betrays his own lack of value, as if he’s not just talking about some guy named Gary who’s been exploiting his labor for the last four decades. Stanley thinks the whole world is against him, except for the one person who’s actually kept him down.
Jevon — who showed a talent for investigative journalism before he was sent to jail — immediately drills some holes into Stanley’s petrified self-mythology. From his perspective, Oscar’s isn’t a local institution so much as “a failing autocracy,” and Stanley hasn’t spent his life doing noble work so much as he’s stunted himself by conflating self-pity with pride. A lesser film might have reduced Jevon to a simple truth-teller, and locked its two lead characters into didactic opposition, but Cohn doesn’t really care if it’s better to be a stooge or a rebel — not in a country where both roads lead to the same place. Instead, “The Last Shift” explodes its central dynamic into something far more nuanced, as the blame that struggling people are conditioned to place on each other slowly boils into punitive action. Only one of them takes the bait, but the systemic antagonisms that develop across age, class, and racial divides work to keep both of them down.
Grim as that may sound, “The Last Shift” is told with a light touch that allows the film to sneak up on you, and even its most painful moments are softened by heartrending solidarity; this ruthless tragicomedy of unexamined lives is so evocative of Alexander Payne’s work that he briefly considered directing it himself, and still maintains an executive producer credit. But Cohn is able to imbue it with an energy all his own. An experienced documentarian making his fiction debut, he attacks this story with a stiff but unforced approach; conflict doesn’t imposes itself upon these characters so much as it patiently waits for them to dig themselves into it, and each scene is cut with the droll mundanity of looking at routine American lives in extreme close-up.
A car rental gone wrong might be the movie’s only moment of high-key hilarity, but throwaway line deliveries — like the bit where Jevon awes Stanley into repeating the phrase “50 dicks” — keep things off-kilter in a way that prevents “The Last Shift” from being diverted towards a more recognizable kind of drama. If anything, the movie almost seems embarrassed by the smallness of its stakes, but that pathetic energy is also the point: Life will go on if Jevon violates his probation, or if Stanley ruins his retirement plan, because society depends on people like these to fall short and do the bare minimum for themselves and each other (an idea that’s best expressed through a terrible incident that Jevon exhumes from Stanley’s past).
Not all of the subplots are satisfying, and the film doesn’t have the bandwidth to flesh out its characters’ home lives as much as it feels like it wants to (Ed O’Neill, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Allison Tolman each give too much to the movie to get so little from it in return), but its smallness allows for a certain consistency. “The Last Shift” only invites us to look down on Stanley when he deserves it, and Jenkins’ performance masterfully threads the needle between victim and accomplice. The actor is a touch more manic and unstable than usual (though sporting a similar vibe to his comparatively menacing work in Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire,” which also premiered at this year’s Sundance), and nothing feels more intrinsically American than his ability to seem aggrieved and heroic at the same time.
It would all be for nought of McGhie weren’t able to keep up with his veteran co-star, but the young actor does a fantastic job of rooting his frustration in lived experience; Jevon knows what it’s like to be stuck in place on, and he’s got zero tolerance for people like Stanley telling him that he only has himself to blame. The dynamic between them is rich without feeling overwritten — if you squint you might see shades of Annie Baker — and their best scenes are vivid enough to make Cohn’s decidedly sedate camerawork feel too far removed for its own good.
A more self-insistent style might have distracted from the mission at hand, but “The Last Shift” doesn’t always recognize where it stands on the border between “unfussy” and “uninteresting.” And yet, in such a knowing film about how thoroughly Americans are trained to undervalue themselves and each other, it’s hard to fault “The Last Shift” for doing the bare minimum. After all, it’s only once Jevon learns what his bare minimum looks like that he’s able to raise the bar.
“The Last Shift” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.