Centering on an all-night truckstop diner, “The Off Hours,” Megan Griffiths’ debut feature, is a melancholy tone poem to the small industrial towns of the Northwest. As a late-shift waitress, Amy Seimetz stares pensively into space while other denizens of the night circle her like moths around a flickering bulb. Low-budget indie’s atmospheric milieu, brushed with touches of Edward Hopper, might have been more impressive if anchored by a story, however slight, that moved with less tortoise-like deliberation. “Hours” will likely divide auds between those who find it deeply moving and those who consider it merely pretentious.
Few would dispute, though, that the film is all of a piece in evoking the feel of a whistle-stop outpost in the lonely hours before dawn. Ace indie lenser Benjamin Kasulke proves as sensitive to the shifting texture of the desolate landscape, with its extensive palette of blacks and grays, as helmer Griffiths is to every nuance of her dead-end characters’ mood swings.
Francine (Seimetz), a product of foster homes, has been slinging hash at the diner for a dozen years. She lives with her best friend and foster brother, Corey (Scoot McNairy), who plays in a band at the nearby bar and whose more-than-brotherly affection she cannot reciprocate; instead, she sleeps semi-regularly with his bandmate Ty (Bret Roberts) and grabs quickies in the diner’s restroom on slow nights. Yet this meaningless repetition affords no sense of belonging — everyone seems to live in motels, transients in their very passivity.
The diner also serves as lodestar for other characters stranded in a place where sex and booze rank as the only games in town. Diner owner Stu (Tony Doupe) opts for the latter, his alcoholism having cost him his wife (Lynn Shelton) and teenage daughter (Madeline Elizabeth), whose portrait he methodically paints while steadily drinking himself into insensibility. Meanwhile, the diner’s other waitress, Jelena (Gergana Mellin), an acerbic Serbian emigree with an estranged grown son, joylessly has sex with any trucker who blows through.
The arrival of Oliver (Ross Partridge), a different kind of trucker who brings with him a faint whiff of a wider existence, awakens Francine from her doleful torpor. They slowly approach each other, sharing walks and talks and dreams, but he is married with kids, the camera following him home on several occasions.
The strong ensemble cast memorably fleshes out Griffiths’ vulnerable castaways, lending them presence and weight, but never enough to overcome the pic’s glacial slowness. In a sense, “The Off Hours” provides a reverse angle for a road movie, focusing not on the people passing through but on those who stay behind. Indeed, whenever one character moves away from another, Griffiths keeps the camera bracketed on the person left in the frame, adding to the atmosphere of stasis and stagnation that hangs over the film.