Last Straw

Last Straw (2023)

Last Straw had its UK première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2024.

Last Straw opens near its end, with an aftermath: a tableau in montage showing the interiors of a classic old (faded, even) diner, like a blast from the past of lost Americana. This is also, clearly, the scene of a recent massacre, with blood splattered on the jukebox and on the silver swing doors to the kitchen, with the yellow rotary phone lying off its hook, and with several bodies (including a blonde waitress) glimpsed lying immobile on the floor. Meanwhile, a distressed voice can be heard reporting to emergency services the horrific situation that he has just found at the Fat Bottom Bistro, stating that he thinks his friend Nancy ‘is dying’, and formally identifying himself as Jake Collins (Taylor Kowalski).

The rest of director Alan Scott Neal’s feature debut will elaborate and anatomise the events leading up to this bloodbath, deploying multiple points of view that synthesise into a bigger picture. At the centre of it all is Nancy Osborn (Jessica Belkin), who is having a particularly bad day. Nancy is caught in a cusp. She is a 19-year-old whose head is still back in the high school that she left a year ago, and who has not quite committed to her community college course, or to the different future that it promises. She works at the diner owned by her widowed father Edward (Jeremy Sisto), and has been given managerial duties, knowing full well – because she is repeatedly reminded of it – that her colleagues regard this promotion as entirely undeserved nepotism. Her old car has just died on the road when she was halfway to work – and like the diner itself, which has also obviously seen better days, the vehicle’s associations with Nancy’s late mother make it hard for her or Edward to let it go once and for all. 

Nancy has also just found out that she is pregnant, and she is not totally sure how she feels about it, or who the father might be, although she suspects that it is Bobby (Joji Otani-Hansen), her co-worker at the diner, who likes her more than she likes him. She is considering abortion, but does not want to tell Bobby and is unable to confide in her dad, of whom she says to her best friend Tabitha (Tara Raani), “He’d kill me before I kill it,” using language that the messy prologue has primed viewers to recognise as ironic foreshadowing. 

Edward wants his daughter to work the night shift with Jake, a ‘legacy’ employee (his own late mother used to work at the Fat Bottom Bistro) whom Edward likes and trusts but Nancy considers a ‘freak’. Nancy has morning sickness, and her bad mood is not helped by the gang of four bike kids in masks who harass and menace her in the forecourt and the dining area while her own colleagues – Jake, his Downs syndrome brother Petey (Christopher M. Lopes), the line cook (Doug Sakmann) and Bobby – stand by and watch from the sidelines without stepping in to help. Jake keeps openly undermining Nancy’s authority, and in the heat of the moment, she fires him, meaning that she has to cover the night shift alone. Which is when the boys in masks return, looking for trouble, even as the police are distracted by a horrific multiple murder further down the road.   

Taylor Sardoni’s screenplay is like a fine diner steak, served fast and lean, with no fat on the bone. Events take unexpected turns as we first see them from Nancy’s panicked goldfish-bowl perspective, and then revisit them from the outside in – but either way, we already know, or at least have a good idea, where the narrative is headed, so that everything here comes dripping with immense tension. The closest analogue is Padraig Reynolds’ Open 24 Hours (2018), and while it lacks that film’s hints at psychodrama, it remains, at heart, the story of a young woman who feels desperate and beleaguered even before the vicious raid on the diner, and who must quickly find her inner strength and the desire, finally, to put past and grief behind her, to take responsibility, and to confront life as an adult, perhaps even as a mother. Near the beginning, as she discusses her pregnancy with Tabitha over a joint, Nancy says that there is a “creature growing up inside” her. Last Straw converts this difficult, painful coming of age to thrilling genre fare.

strap: In Alan Scott Neal’s lean-cooked siege thriller, a newly pregnant teen on night shift at a diner is beleaguered by masked men

© Anton Bitel