Eye For Film >> Movies >> Last Straw (2023) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Although most of them are employed and not uneducated, almost 38 million people in the US live in poverty. This doesn’t just impact the type of homes they can live in, what they can eat and their access to healthcare, it also makes it very difficult for them to plan a more positive future. It’s impossible to take risks if one wrong move could lead to destitution. Life is lived in a constant state of precarity, with any turn of bad luck potentially devastating. Over time, this damages people’s mental health and increases tension between them, so that personal struggles can easily spill over and affect others. It’s one thing in cities, where one might still hope to chance upon some life-changing opportunity, but in many small towns, hope is in short supply.
Last Straw, which screened as part of Beyond Fest 2023, opens with a 911 call. The caller gives his name as Jake Collins. He tells the operator that his friend Nancy is at Fat Bottom Bistro, covered in blood, and he thinks she’s dying. But Nancy isn’t the only one in trouble.
Flashing back 24 hours, we see Nancy (Jessica Belkin) far away from the diner, all alone on a patch of waste ground. She has gone out into the middle of nowhere to take a pregnancy test, squatting down in the long grass like a wary animal. The result is predictable enough. On top of that, her car breaks down and she has to walk into town. Then her dad, who owns the diner, tells her that there’s a bug going round and other staff are off sick so she will have to work that night, alone there apart from Jake (Taylor Kowalski), whom she refers to as ‘the freak’ – which doesn’t seem to fit with the purported friendship. We soon see why she doesn’t like Jake as he leads his friends in ridiculing her and refusing to acknowledge her authority. It’s an intolerable situation, making it impossible for her to do her job – and so she makes a drastic decision which sends both their lives spiralling out of control.
There’s another incident at the diner on that difficult day. A group of young men start causing trouble and one of them gets aggressive with Nancy when she throws them out, telling her that he’ll be back later. She’s very upset and not good at hiding it, which immediately gives him a sense of his power, and it’s obvious that, alone in an isolated location, in a building which has big windows all the way along the front and round one corner, she feels very exposed, especially as it starts to go dark. Given the opening, viewers will already have a sense of what to expect, but writer Taylor Sardoni and director Alan Scott Neal still manage to up the ante and to pack in a couple of uncomfortable twists. Then something happens which changes the playbook: we go back and watch the whole of that later sequence over again from the point of view of the attackers.
It’s a clever structure but one which could easily go awry. Neal handles it well, with the confidence to alter events very slightly so as to communicate the different perspectives of his principal characters. A subplot involving a young man who has a crush on Nancy is interestingly handled. By and large her male peers still act as though they’re in high school, with priorities revolving around status and sex, whereas her concerns run much deeper. It’s not that they don’t have very real problems of their own, but they don’t seem to be as conscious of the driving forces in their lives.
This inability of certain characters to fully understand themselves extends into difficulty empathising with other people. Though he sympathises with her fears, a police officer who stops by the diner illustrates this difficulty perfectly when remarking “You have no idea how good it feels to get off your feet for a minute,” to a waitress. There’s a good supporting turn from Christoper M Lopes as Petey, a young man with Down syndrome who is the only person who receives more consideration, revealing that it’s not impossible for a more functional society to emerge here – it’s just that everyone is already at the end of their tether and feeling as if they have no more to give.
Although the characters struggle to empathise, there’s plenty of room for viewers to do so, and yet Neal and Sardoni’s investment in this aspect of the film doesn’t mean that the thriller elements are forgotten. The film’s conclusions are not as obvious as they may seem, and there’s plenty going on along the way. Much of this has to do with the balance of power and characters’ ability to find power within themselves when faced with various kinds of crises. After all, the last straw might break a camel’s back or persuade it to shed its burden and refuse to play by the rules any more.Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2023
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