“Last Call” is a movie about a man in need of an intervention. Not Scott (Daved Wilkins, co-writer of the downbeat film), who misdials the suicide hotline and gets a janitor named Beth (Sarah Booth) — who’s working late at the local community college — instead, but director Gavin Michael Booth, who has fallen for the fad of shooting an entire feature in a single take — or a double take, in this case. Booth films both sides of this high-stakes phone conversation simultaneously, then crowds them into the same frame, so audiences can watch this miserable melodrama play out in real time.
Someone should step in and stop inexperienced directors from pulling this sort of stunt, especially when masked as some kind of statement, the way Booth does. I don’t mean to trivialize suicide by suggesting that “Last Call” doesn’t take the subject seriously. It’s just that Booth has chosen a technique that calls attention to itself in a way that other “oner” movies (“Birdman,” “1917”) manage to avoid. While it’s undeniably suspenseful to watch someone threaten to end his life in one half of the screen while a complete stranger ill-equipped to intervene struggles to talk him off the proverbial ledge, the director doesn’t seem especially invested in advancing public awareness about self-harm — which is ostensibly the reason that Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and Laemmle Theatres are releasing this shoestring indie during Suicide Prevention Month.
In interviews, helmer Booth (who has produced a ton of music videos and shorts, but only a couple other low-budget features) has admitted that he initially thought of making the Beth character a crisis hotline operator, but then he learned how those professionals are trained to deal with such calls. Their checklist didn’t point to the ending he wanted, so he made it a wrong number instead.
On one hand, that adds a layer of unexpected drama to the situation. On the other, it reveals how disingenuous Booth and co-writer/co-star Wilkins were about saving Scott’s life. They’ve already decided how “Last Call” should play out, reverse-engineering their script to get audiences to that point, while hoping the formal conceit will impress and/or distract us from the insincerity of their intentions. Yes, the split-screen approach allows audiences to see what both characters are doing, but that’s also how traditional cross-cutting works — and here’s a story that should have been told in half the time.
Ironically, what’s wrong with “Last Call” isn’t the fact that it’s calculated, but that it’s not calculated enough. If you’re going to make an ultra-low-budget movie that takes place in real time, everything really ought to be planned out meticulously, but there’s so much dead space here, and it’s unfair to ask composer Adrian Ellis to fill it all: The two characters wander in and out of the frame, and DP Seth Wessel-Estes’ cameras have not been choreographed to do anything in their absence, leaving one-half of the shot “empty” at times. That’s something Mike Figgis realized when he made “Timecode” all the way back in 2000: If you’re showing concurrent action in multiple windows, it’s the director’s job to direct the audience’s attention. Booth doesn’t.
At the outset, he divides the screen horizontally, creating two dramatically widescreen windows stacked one on top of the other. Above, Booth shows a bar near closing time, although this shot doesn’t initially appear to be focused on anyone in particular. Down below, Beth’s half of the image is practically an action movie by comparison, as the single mom drives in to her night shift, juggling calls about her missing son — a dangling personal crisis that might deserve a film of its own (Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Oscar-nominated short “Madre” comes to mind), but which remains maddeningly unresolved until the final seconds of this one.
Scott is depressed, and once he reaches Beth by phone, the dividing seam rotates until they appear side by side. The two characters eventually bond over their children, but the film is frustratingly slow to build, and suicide should never be used as a device in cinema. It’s too serious a subject (I’ll never forgive another Oscar short, “Curfew,” for being glib in that regard). Once Scott’s intentions do become clear, it’s even more frustrating to realize that Beth has no way of identifying where he is.
Booth the actor gives Booth the director (the two are married) a terrific, totally relatable performance, but there’s a cruelty to what the movie puts people through that would have been unbearable if the film had focused only on her side of the story, à la Gustav Möller’s “The Guilty” (a tightly scripted thriller told entirely from the POV of a 911 operator). Frankly, I don’t get this flavor-of-the-moment obsession with real-time storytelling. It’s been the default mode of live theater for centuries. More impressive are the directors who show they can create and sustain suspense by manipulating perspective and time. Booth is more invested in manipulating emotions, using suicide and that split-screen gimmick to turn “Last Call” into a personal calling card while the characters become casualties to that agenda.