Hanging On: Last Call (2020)-Reviewed

Fair or not, there's a tendency among a not insignificant portion of the film community to label one-take films as a "gimmick." Even when there's a clear reason behind it, many people become hung up on the director wanting to "show off." I've always found that line of thinking silly at best but I won't lie and say that I haven't found myself drifting into that territory. A film is more than its perceived "gimmicks" though  and I think we, as viewers, owe every piece of a film more than write-off like that. Especially when one as riveting as Last Call comes along.

Shot in two true one takes and presented in split screen, Gavin Michael Booth's Last Call takes place, in real time, over one phone call that will change the lives of the people on each end. Scott (Daved Wilkins, also co-writer with Booth) gets home from the bar, already very drunk. He plops down on the couch, tries to call someone who doesn't answer and eventually calls a number that he thinks is a suicide help line. Running concurrently to this, we see Beth (Sarah Booth) getting into work. A student moonlighting as a janitor at her college, she's fretting about her eldest son who still hasn't reported home to the babysitter. In between increasingly frantic calls back and forth to the sitter, she ends up being on the receiving end of Scott's call. Over the next hour, the two will have one of the most devastating onscreen experiences you'll see this year.

My initial skepticism due to both the aforementioned unfair bias to "gimmicks" and the fact that this is releasing during Suicide Awareness Month was almost immediately dispelled. There's a world in which this plays like an hour-long, condescending commercial for the "You are not alone" set. Like many people, I suffer from depression and there's an inherent fear going into to a film like Last Call. Your defenses are up because you don't want to be preached to and you definitely don't want some saccharine, heavy-handed message. Thankfully, Last Call is none of that but instead, a brutal 75 minutes of searing honesty and heartbreaking reality.

Booth's direction and script are two important keys to getting something like this to work. My brain is geared pretty heavily toward dialogue heavy movies, I love nothing more than watching people sit around and talk for 90 minutes. But the work has to be put in to make it compelling and the script is more than up to it. Never descending into platitudes about suicide or depression, the conversation moves along so honestly, it's genuinely hard to watch at times. Getting to the core of that honesty is the depiction of Scott, both in Wilkins' performance and in how he's written. There's a side to mental illness that's hard to acknowledge, especially to yourself. Depression colors perspective and that lack of perspective can cause you to be, for lack of a nicer term, an asshole. Scott is tremendously heartbreaking not just because of his circumstances but because his trauma has forced him into a shell of a person. Being so far into the throes of depression, Scott vacillates between friendly curiosity about Beth and outbursts of rage. It's a brutal portrayal and gets vitally close to what that it feels like when you just need someone to talk to and anyone will do. Beth is, quite literally, his life line and in our worst moments we often throw those life lines away. It’s a bold but realistic choice to make Scott hard to root for so to speak. 

Scott's is the showier role and while not an easy one to pull off, I think it requires a bit less than what's asked of Sarah Booth as Beth. This is where the film truly soars, Sarah Booth's staggering performance as the person unwittingly thrown into what may be the last moments of someone's life. It's never an easy ask to be on the receiving end of a "going through the wringer" performance but Booth is unbelievable in how much she connects with both her character and Wilkins'. Her flustered annoyance at having answered a wrong number call turning to stone cold terror at the realization of what Scott is calling for brought me to tears. From there, she's a force, doing everything she can to keep Scott on the phone. 

Running around the campus, desperately trying to get information out of him or find it through the computer, she anchors the film and helps lift it past just "good." She frequently makes you forget about all the camera trickery, becoming one with cinematographer Seth Wessell-Estes' camera. As she bounces around the campus, increasingly frantic, it glides with her in a dance of a performance, the two as partners. Booth is so empathetic, her face processing 1000 different emotions. It's a stunner of a performance and completely blew me away. Last Call works as a tightly written thriller of sorts because she forces you to care.

It doesn’t all work, the score is oppressively tinkly and sad and even at a tight 75 minutes, it feels bloated. But those are relatively small gripes about a very strong version of the kind of indie film that usually ends in disaster. Grounded in intense realism and offering no easy answers, Last Call transcends what could have been a misstep. The fact that it isn’t is a small miracle, thanks to a thoughtful script, smart and kinetic filmmaking and a knockout performance from Sarah Booth. It’s an exceptionally tough film to watch in a moment where windows for hope are becoming increasingly small but if you can weather that, it’s one of the more compelling journeys you’ll take this year. 

-Brandon Streussnig

Last Call is available through select Virtual Theaters starting Friday, September 18th