The Late Shift, by David Bax
My experience from attending a film school is that neophyte filmmakers will often choose a genre story for their first foray into directing. I think that’s because genres provide a loose structure from the outset that can be sort of like training wheels or like keeping one hand on the wall in a dark hallway. Benjamin Stark’s first feature, The Nocturnal Third, is not exactly the work of a tyro, as he has made a number of shorts, but he both does and doesn’t fall into the same trap as my former classmates.
What’s odd is that the genre elements of The Nocturnal Third (the suspense/thriller genre, to be exact) are the least effective parts. In many other ways, this is a surprisingly ambitious film for a beginner. For one thing, it’s especially heavy on the dialog, often a recipe for tedium in low-budget indies. In this case, though, it succeeds. In addition, the major theme of a young person making the transition into a contributing member of society – and all the responsibilities that come along – is refreshingly honest and mature.
Eli (Kevin Maggard) is a young newlywed with lots of bills and a car in the shop. He takes on an extra graveyard shift at work to make a dent in his financial burdens. During the course of the night that the majority of the film takes place, he and his only other coworker, Harold (who has grievously injured himself but refuses medical attention) play host to a young man named Jeffrey whose car has broken down and who needs a place to wait until his father comes to pick him up.
Harold’s increasingly dire state lends the film a persistent gloom and uneasiness. Meanwhile, as Jeffrey’s reasons for being at the warehouse grow ever more suspicious and possibly threatening, the film further envelops its viewer. Wescott Youngson as Harold and particularly Luke Weaver as Jeffrey, a talkative and uneasy character with scads of dialog, are well-equipped performers. It’s Maggard, however, who is the weak spot. As an actor, he seems so uncomfortable that it’s hard to tell whether the trepidation he displays is his or the character’s.
Fortunately, Stark covers for his star by providing him and the rest of the cast a nuanced and interesting script. The dialog is strong and walks a balancing beam between being carefully chosen and feeling realistic. Once Eli arrives for his shift and the story begins in earnest, these words are what carry the film along. It’s only at the end, when the nature of the genre requires some real action, that the director falters. Serving as his own editor may not have been the most effective choice. The pursuit that is crucial to the final act is plodding and awkwardly cut.
Despite that trip-up at the end, I kept returning to the words Stark wrote and the ideas they express. That feeling of being on the cusp between idealism and the compromise that comes with adulthood is resonant and clear in this film. As a result, and even with the flaws, I am rather interested to see what Stark can do in the future.