Bird Watching – The Off Hours – SIFF Film Review
There’s a point in the film The Off Hours, from local writer and director Megan Griffiths, when our main character, Francine, answers a casual question about how long she’s worked as a waitress at a truck stop diner. An attractive and somewhat troubled woman, Francine seems like maybe she’s in her late twenties. So her answer—”Twelve years, on and off”—jolted me a little. Twelve years? I’m 28, I’ve worked at the same place for five years, and it feels like forever. How would twelve years feel, at this point in time? But it’s just a shrugged-off fact for Francine. It’s not that it’s insignificant to her story; it’s that it’s simply treated as another straightforward detail in the encompassing, plodding world created by the film.
We meet several other people who work at this 24-hour establishment, somewhere on a highway in the Pacific Northwest. There’s Jelena (Gergan Mellin), a middle-aged waitress with a Serbian accent and an interesting reason for being where she is; Stu (Tony Doupe), the diner’s owner, who wishes for a better relationship with his teenage daughter, and spends his spare time painting, and also drinking; a cook who’s never seen outside of the kitchen, as if that is the only place he ever is. There’s not a lot of overt happiness here. Everyone seems resolved to that.
Francine’s world gets a little jolt of excitement in the form of a flirtation with Oliver (Ross Partridge), a trucker who, despite being married with kids, seems interested in her. We get the sense that flings with men who are passing through are not uncommon, but he shows the tell-tale signs of being just a bit different than the usual truckers who hit on her. He sits at the counter reading a book; he asks her questions about herself. We learn that he used to have a white collar life that didn’t bring him satisfaction. This new existence may not be perfect, but driving a truck is better for him than what he did before.
The other male causing waves in Francine’s life is her roommate, Corey (Scoot McNairy). The details of their relationship to each other are revealed in a couple of nicely done scenes that really feel like the kinds of conversations one has with another person when there are layers of feelings and history only being referenced obliquely. Their interactions showcase the best dialogue and acting in a film that’s already pretty solid on both of those counts. I’m definitely interested in seeing more from both of these actors.
Despite its focus on some unhappy times in the lives of its characters, The Off Hours avoids feeling like a film meant to shine a harsh light on the lives of a certain sector of working class people. It also isn’t looking to tell a cautionary tale about a woman and her choices. It provides a picture of Francine’s life, and, while leaving plenty of room to ponder possible mistakes being made or a different future, it doesn’t judge her for the life she leads. The way we look at her is both intimate and removed. We can be let in on the details, but we can’t pretend to really know her. In that way, she feels real, and never sensational.
Besides the depiction of Francine, the thing that impressed me most about this film was the overall craftsmanship. This is a low-budget indie production, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, because the film simply looks good; the cinematography, showcasing the skill of Ben Kasulke, is top-notch. The music, from Jeramy Koepping and Joshua Morrison, fits the atmosphere completely. Locations like Francine’s apartment, the diner, and the cab of Oliver’s truck feel like they’ve been inhabited for years. (This is especially impressive because, as Griffiths says in this interview, the sets started out bare.)
The methodical nature of the way the film sets up its locations and characters means that it feels a bit slow at times. I think this is mostly worth it, for the amount of settling in we get to do as viewers, into this world where so much of the action takes place when most of society is sleeping. We don’t build to a traditional third-act climax or final determination, good or bad, on Francine’s or other characters’ lives, though significant things do happen to them. The film is not filled up with hope, but not overly bleak, either. Kind of like life, most of the time. If I’m overusing ways of saying the film feels “real,” then so be it. That’s how it feels.
The Off Hours is playing as a part of the Seattle International Film Festival. You can see it at the Neptune Theater on June 6 at 7:00 PM or June 7 at 4:30 PM.