Since the kinetoscope, artists have been devising new and creative ways to push the boundaries of motion picture storytelling. Audiences have seen gimmicks as simple as smell-o-vision and 3D or as technically complex as 4DX and ScreenX enter their local theater houses in a variety of bids to entice them to purchase a ticket and go for a ride. The thing is that more often than not, simpler is better. That what creates an immersive experience is the story itself in combination with top-tier performances. After hitting some festivals before COVID-19, director Gavin Michael Booth’s Last Call is set to hit select theaters beginning on September 18th. What Booth presents in partnership with co-writer and co-star Daved Wilkins is certainly not to be missed. Why? Creatively, Wilkins and his screen partner Sarah Booth offer devastating performances that left this reviewer in shambles. Technically, Booth and his team devised a zero cut or transition structure for the entirety of Last Call. In concert, Last Call becomes far more inspiring even as it shatters you into a million pieces.
With her teenage son still out past curfew, night janitor Beth (Sarah Booth) is beside herself as she comes into work to cover an extra shift. Juggling classes, work, and two kids is hard enough and the last thing she needs is to worry about where her son could be. Across town, Scott (Wilkins) buys a bottle of booze off the bartender who’s been serving him before leaving and walking back to his apartment. Life’s been one crushing blow after another and tonight feels like the right time to end things. Having been holding onto the number for a suicide helpline for some time, Scott gives it a call, except he mistakenly calls Beth. Neither are prepared for what they find on the other end of the line, but it may be exactly what the other needs.
The “one-take” cinematic experience is not very new as even last year’s awards contenders included Sam Mendes’ 1917, a film which used hidden transitions to simulate the events occuring in one fluid movement. This is not the case for Booth’s Last Call. Booth set up two teams, one following Beth’s story and one following Scott’s, working in tandem to follow the characters through vehicles, hallways, elevators, staircases, and basically anything that came in their path. Only on a handful of occasions does the camera either remain still while the characters move out of eyeline or move without its respective character in view. The result is a film which takes place live with the same energy of a play, wherein anything seems possible: good, bad, or otherwise. Like jumping without a net, recording each performer in the wild of Windsor, Ontario, Canada meant moving around real-world obstacles, eluding camera-capturing mirrors, and anticipating any kind of hindrance for either the equipment or performers. Though filming in such a fashion does seem like a stylistic flourish at first and a mental exercise on whether a camera crew could capture a dual live performance in a single sustained shot, once the characters connect and the stakes are set, the audience comes to realize that what they are witnessing isn’t style over substance but something truly unique and emotionally visceral.
The technical side is not simple to execute in the slightest, but the film itself wouldn’t work with the performances from Sarah Booth and Wilkins. One is not billed over the other and neither are presented that way either. In fact, the editing from Booth places the two leads so they occupy different portions of the screen which shift as the film goes on: top/bottom horizontal in one section, left/right vertical in another, and then it rotates again. (More on that shortly.) With the visual style shifting like this, Booth communicates how neither Beth nor Scott are in control of their interaction, yet are tightly linked nonetheless. Wilkins offers a strong performance from the start, though his is deceptively simpler at first and settles into a rolling boil for the remainder of Last Call. The audience knows something is off about Scott as we’re introduced to him sitting at a bar just before he asks to purchase a bottle from the bartender. Even if we didn’t know something was amiss seeing him alone at the bar, the request immediately implies some kind of unease. Later, as the film unveils its narrative climax, Wilkins’s easy movements and quiet vocal delivery incite the audience to lean in further, placing us on the literal edge to determine what Scott will do next. Conversely, Sarah Booth has the harder job as Beth finds herself quickly out of her depth, answering a phone that she shouldn’t only because she’s worried about her son. Unlike Scott at the start, Beth is driving to work while he sits at the bar. Both are presented as in transit, just at different speeds and containing different intents. Driving the car, getting to her place of work, setting up, and the like require Sarah to move with comfort in the space — again, creating that illusion of an extended stage. Physically, Sarah quickly establishes Beth’s comfort and drive as she moves about the space with specific intent. Though seemingly small in stature, she moves with a powerful presence, an energy which becomes more diminutive the further into the night she goes. It’s not that Beth is somehow bested or beaten through her interaction with Scott, it’s that the emotional wallop that comes from each new revelation as the film rapidly shifts from patient slow burn and the way it turns the heat way up becomes too much to bear. Even as the audience suspects that a narrative like the one within Last Call only possesses a limited number of possible endings, Sarah’s performance will knock the wind out of you as Beth, too deeply out of her depth, flounders at near every turn with Scott.
As mentioned previously, neither Sarah Booth nor Wilkins take the top spot as the film is truly a partnership between the two performers as they not only act, but hit their marks with extreme precision for the duration of Last Call. In order to instill additional dynamism, Booth shifts the audience’s viewpoint of the characters’ relative position throughout the film. Doing so doesn’t seem in line with any kind of shift in power dynamic as the characters learn more about each other or great emphasis on performance or content so much as it appears to offer a visual break for the audience. Long takes are, by nature, lengthy and can be exhausting in the watching, making a visual change necessary to avoid wearing out your audience. It’s a small trick executed by having the line separating Beth and Scott move from a horizontal positon to a vertical one, visually shifting where the characters exist within the audience’s view. The fourth and final piece making up Last Call is the sublime score from composer Adrian Ellis (Deadsight). It is incredibly simplistic with its use of piano and strings, yet incredibly provocative, especially when consumed in concert with the performances. Evidently, not to be left out from the creative team and cast, Ellis recorded the score live while watching the film and you’d never know it. Before the audience gets a proper introduction to either character, Ellis’s score inserts a light melancholia that isn’t without the sprites of hope. Last Call is by no means an easy to digest character drama, but the remnants of hope that Ellis sprinkles within the score help keep the narrative elements from becoming totally unbearable.
As many films as I try to view each year, it’s rare to find something as daring and adventurous as what Booth and Wilkins create inside Last Call. It’s a story we’ve seen in some capacity, yet the sparseness of the cast, the creative means of capturing the performances, and the score unite into something altogether original. It’s not perfect as any true experiment will run into issues from time to time, like how the audio grows muffled on one side of the conversation as Booth attempts to capture focus onto the other. It’s far easier to control audio from individual sources, but as both performances are recorded live, the bleed from one tends to create discord upon the other. Plus, as a former server in a restaurant and one whose brother has been a server, bartender, and manager of a restaurant, any bartender who would not only continue to serve an obviously inebriated customer, let alone sell them a bottle, is something which truly grates, true in reality or not. But my personal opinion on bartending and tech issues aside, Last Call will pull you in with its creativity and then absolutely knock you on your ass with its climax. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend going to a theater to see it, but I can recommend tracking it down to see as safely as possible. I found it profoundly arresting with the emotions Sarah Booth’s performance evoked lingering for some time after it was over.
In select theaters beginning September 18th, 2020.
Head to Last Call’s official website for more information.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.