[Sitges 2023 Review] LAST STRAW

We all have a breaking point. Most of us can walk ourselves back but, when one thing happens after another after another, there comes a point when resiliency isn’t enough. All it’ll take is one thing to make it our last straw before all hell breaks loose. Wrapped up in a home-invasion style format, Alan Scott Neal’s directorial debut, LAST STRAW, grapples with this idea, where both final girl and assailant have reached their final breaking point, making for a violent affair.

Opening the film is a scene spanning over a diner. Close-up shots take in the finer details, the blood on a doorknob, the flickering of neon lights, and settling on the body of a seemingly dead girl before we hear a 911 call. The audience is presented with what’s to come before dialing back 24 hours earlier.

Here is where we meet the volatile Nancy (Jessica Belkin), a small-town 20-year-old who is feeling stuck in her life. After discovering she’s pregnant, things go south for her here. The back-to-back inconveniences she experiences on top of sexual harassment at work by a group of hooligans lead to her last straw and catapults her into a decision she’ll come to regret.

Forced to work the late shift by her father, Nancy is left to her own devices. That is until a gang of boys starts to harass her. Things escalate and soon she finds herself fighting for her life. Instead of a home, the audience and Nancy witness an invasion of the diner.

One flawed writing decision

LAST STRAW is competently done. Building up the character of Nancy provides someone to both root against and root for. Belkin’s development of the character in her performance provides relatability even if Nancy herself is not wholly likable. She is stuck.
Her father, in the hopes of both keeping her here and helping her find her way, thrusts her into a manager position she doesn’t even want. And with the added addition of an unwanted pregnancy, her emotions are everywhere. She isn’t perfect, but the audience more than understands why she is the way she is.

Halfway through the film, it seems like the momentum is on track. Until it’s not. When the identities of the assailants are revealed, Neal and writer Taylor Sardoni make the odd, unfortunate decision to take us backward in time yet again to provide context for the assailants’ motivation. This decision, ultimately, weakens LAST STRAW.

While the background explains how the assailants landed on their own last straw moment, going backward in pacing and momentum causes the film to lose steam. This forces the filmmaker to find ways to ramp things up again rather than use the momentum already established to push things forward naturally.

Neal does achieve the high intensity again, but one wonders where things would have evolved without the stopgap. The background provided could have been woven in without having to take things backward in time. Through little dialogue notes here and there, momentum wouldn’t have had to have been sacrificed.

LAST STRAW and the Dine-and-Dash

There is something to be said about LAST STRAW and its approach to toxic masculinity. This can be found in both the teenage gang at the beginning of the film, but also within the diner as well. The escalation to violence and intimidation of Nancy is difficult to ignore. And, with the character Jake (Taylor Kowalski) juggling the role of caretaker to his brother Petey (Christopher M. Lopes), there’s that added layer of nuance as well.

However, another note can be made about how Nancy responds to the toxic masculinity and how the masculine influence has molded her into the woman she is now. This is purely conjecture, but it is a fascinating note when taking into consideration the depths of her character.

Taking place in a diner, LAST STRAW has a lot going for it. Moving the location of the invasion to a 24-hour diner opens a lot of possibilities to the genre. With an unconventional final girl and how the title’s meaning can apply to most characters in the film, it easily crafts a tension that gets lost a bit halfway through. LAST STRAW proves that there’s potential for more in Alan Scott Neal and makes me curious to see more of Sardoni’s writing.

LAST STRAW world premiered at Sitges Film Festival and makes its North American debut at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles.

Sarah Musnicky
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