Though it resembles countless other indie films exploring the whys, wherefores and rhythms of small-town anomie and the young people caught in its grasp, “Last Ball” offers moments of human perception that surprise by their power, economy and humility. Although sometimes working in a painfully precious and studied manner, writer-director Peter Callahan knows his subject and specific setting and therefore his storytelling operates with gradual accretion. The results are more interesting than first appearances would indicate, and though quiet pic has only the barest of chances of busting out of the small fest ghetto, it’s easy to imagine an unveiling on specialized cable.
Like a place near the lip of heaven but still firmly in hell, Hastings-on-the-Hudson, N.Y., offers tempting vistas of nearby Manhattan but may as well be in deepest Nevada as far as Jim (Charlie Hofheimer) is concerned. Curious enough about life to persistently peruse “The Encyclopedia of Crime” but too unmotivated to consider quitting his job as a taxi driver, Jim is the quintessential poster boy for America’s downwardly mobile. His thoughts, in the form of unimaginatively structured serial flashbacks, continually go back to his May-December affair with Cathy (Laurel Holloman), a local married woman.
Callahan appears concerned that we get every one of these slices of memory, as if filmic fragmentation is too highfalutin an intention for the movie’s human-scale purposes. He’s at his best in one-on-one scenes, such as those between Jim and his preppy, proper father (the always precise James Rebhorn), Jim and hard-studying roommate Craig (Avery Glymph, who accomplishes the difficult job of acting intelligent but not arrogant), and Jim and Bobby (the overactive Thomas Lyons), the taxi company’s floundering dispatcher. In these scenes, the dialogue is replete with subtext and the thesps are attuned to their characters.
However, a running routine involving Jim and dimwitted Scooter (Leo Fitzpatrick) and, later, with Scooter and his obnoxious g.f. Valerie (Amelia Campbell) are cases of letting actors run loose with poorly devised characters. More critically, Jim and Carol’s fling is seen through a murky glass, leaving us no more aware of the nature of their love at the end than at the beginning. It’s telling that a gloriously sad moment with washed-up barkeep Irma (a sublime Karen Shallo) — she asks Jim, “Think I always wanted to do this?” — is far more shattering than the final breakup with Carol.
Hofheimer risks everything by playing Jim somewhat blankly, making it difficult to tell when the guy is going to get enough clues that he should bolt out of the dead-end town. Not even Craig leaving for uptown Manhattan does it, and when the light does goes on inside Jim, the full benefit of Hofheimer’s subtle portrayal appears like a discovery.
A final action setpiece, in which Jim swims across the Hudson to get out of town, is both a joke (Hastings as a kind of Alcatraz) and a fine display of pic’s sudden physical expansiveness. Despite a rather beat-up screening print, lensing and design elements are crafted and true to the story’s spirit.