“The Last Shift,” a fast-food tragedy written and directed by Andrew Cohn, is a gut punch with a side of anguish. In this wonderfully sad small-town drama, the ever-empathetic Richard Jenkins plays Stan, a former high school athlete who took the graveyard shift at local chain Oscar’s Chicken and Fish in 1971 and never left. He’s given them four decades of his life; they’ve raised his hourly wage from $3.10 to just over $13. He considers that a fair trade. To Stan, at least, Oscar’s is no less cozy than his rented room in a flophouse, where his roommates are so shiftless, he’s had to install four locks on his bedroom door.
But Stan’s finally decided to quit. Though he looks old enough for retirement – Jenkins limps with the stiff knees and aching back of an ex-jock who took too many tackles – he’s saved up just enough cash to get to Sarasota and take care of his dementia-stricken mother, who is astonishingly still alive. (Stan must come from stubborn stock.) Enter his replacement, Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a bright but self-destructive young father on probation from county jail, where he was sent for defacing a monument, riding the wrong way on an escalator and resisting arrest. If that sentence sounds harsh for ordinary teenage high jinks, the outspokenly political Jevon would agree that jail is just one more tactic to keep young black men like him from getting ahead. Back in 1971, Stan bore witness to another when his white classmates beat up one of the school’s black students on campus, stopping only when the boy died.
Things in Albion, Mich., haven’t improved. The town, which is about an hour from where Cohn grew up, is sliding into despair. Everyone who wanders by Cohn’s camera is drunk or bitter or broke, except for a car of rowdy football-playing seniors who howl, “Stan the man!” through the drive-thru window, flushed with the foolhardy confidence that their futures are totally going to rule. “It’s a s—hole, says Stan’s best friend Dale (a subdued, credible Ed O’Neill). Counters Stan, “It’s our s—hole.”
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Stan’s proud of his life. He has to be, because the alternative would be too depressing. Mark Orton’s gentle jazz score sparkles with optimism that becomes increasingly, deliberately discordant as Stan begins to sour on his employers, thanks in part to Jevon’s endless ribbing about how much Oscar’s sucks. Still, Cohn makes it OK to laugh as Stan trains Jevon on his hard-earned wisdom, like that middle-class women prefer honey mustard to ranch. Reminiscing about his worst days on the job, Stan shudders to think of the birthday party that ran out of ketchup. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Stan and Jevon’s conflicts are both small and fixable — say, a frozen burger served to an exhausted, furious mom — and overwhelming, especially when Jevon tries to talk to Stan about inequality and race. Jevon’s reference to “separate but equal” is waved off as chit-chat about the kitchen prep area division between fish and chicken. A speech about how they’re subjugated to a “failing autocracy” befuddles Stan, though he suspects it means he’s a sucker. But when Jevon alludes to white privilege, Stan snaps. “That’s just frickin’ baloney!” he snarls. “No one ever gave me nothing.”
Cohn’s made several documentaries about the failing American dream, and he’s attuned to Stan’s pride and ignorance. Stan’s maturity seems to have stopped in 1971, perhaps because the script hasn’t allowed him any interest in marriage or parenthood, things that might have expanded his world beyond the drive-thru window. He never so much as sighs about, say, a high school love who slipped away, and if there are other singles in town who might be lonely, too, apparently they’ve never popped by for a late-night fish fillet.
Stan also hasn’t outgrown the racism of his era. He’d deny it, of course. Isn’t he deferential to his boss, Shazz (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, in a welcome follow-up to “Dolemite Is My Name”), and friendly to the black regulars who come by the place? Doesn’t he applaud the work ethic of immigrant prep cook Fernando (Dano Duran)? Stan’s bigotry is quieter, more insidious. It’s what keeps him from speaking up when Dale says that while he feels bad that kid died in ’71, he wouldn’t have been killed if he didn’t talk so much. And it’s what keeps him and Jevon from ever being able to connect, as much as the audience aches for them to.
Jenkins brings a painful humanity to the role. He captures Stan’s complicated, conflicting layers, and never lets the part tip too far into pathos without reeling it back. As Jevon, McGhie is roiling with wasted potential. The audience agrees with Jevon that he’s too good for Oscar’s, but his girlfriend Sydney (Birgundi Baker) needs him to do something for their young family, and their showdowns are a highlight.
“The Last Shift” is premiering in an election year where every candidate’s campaign is focused on reaching men like Stan, who have the sense life shouldn’t be this hard, but misdirect their blame. For that alone, it’s worth a watch, even if Cohn is too cynical – or perhaps too honest – to strive for a happy ending. Jevon can’t convince Sam that the working poor should fight the system instead of each other. But at least the kid still has a chance to make choices he won’t regret.