‘The Last Shift’ review: Sharp drama dissects life’s struggles

Stanley is a dying breed.

He’s a 38-year veteran of Oscar’s Chicken and Fish, a run-of-the-mill fast food joint in Albion, Michigan, where he’s the night manager. Days before his retirement, he still lives with two deadbeat roommates, makes lame “Terminator” jokes and doesn’t know how to drive. But his passion lies with hamburger patties and honey-mustard sauce. Hollywood, which tends to glorify glitzier jobs than this, forgets guys like Stanley exist.

His final week of work is the subject of “The Last Shift,” writer-director Andrew Cohn’s sharp new drama about middle-class work, race and our perceptions of both.

Awkward Stanley (Richard Jenkins) has decided to move to Florida to be near his mother, so he’s told to train Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie) as his replacement. Jevon is a black high-school kid, and father, who is recently out of prison on parole. He thinks of himself as above the job, having had a column in his school paper, and aspires to a more creative life.

At first, they spar. “If I’m still here at your age, put me out of my misery, please,” Jevon says. But gradually they warm to each other, even playing a fun game of frozen hamburger-patty hockey to make the graveyard shift go faster.

You think you know where Cohn’s film is headed when an altercation in the parking lot hits you like brain freeze from a milkshake. A character we thought we knew cracks and goes down a ruthless path.

Stanley (Richard Jenkins, right) trains Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie) as his replacement in "The Last Shift."
Stanley (Richard Jenkins, right) trains Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie) as his replacement in “The Last Shift.”

The wrench in the plot is aided by Cohn’s choice to do away with our usual fluorescent-light association with fast-food restaurants and make Oscar’s brooding and shadowy. There can be french fries and suspense.

Jenkins, who has seemingly been in every movie in the last 20 years, is usually tapped for authority figures or confident characters. Think of his cigarette-smoking Nathaniel in HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” His mesmerizing Stanley, with downcast eyes, shaky speech patterns and erratic movements, is the opposite. He’s a weird old guy who you’d be glad to see regularly at a takeout window, if not ever as a dinner companion.

His head-butting with Jevon is fair and fascinating. McGhie, whose eyes have such intensity, speaks like a skilled debater as he tries to convince him Oscar’s, which pays Stanley $13.50 an hour, has cheated the schlub out of money for decades. The duo also argues about race in such a way where you see both sides — a tall order.

What not to expect from this movie, however, is grandiose emotions or Oscars-y shouts. It’s a low-key rest-stop story that appreciates life’s banalities and the struggles of ordinary people.

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